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Thematics :

Two years ago, the Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office requested that France Telecom Orange be charged with “moral harassment”. The cause? The implementation of a policy aimed at unsettling employees in order to speed up redundancies and which led to a wave of suicides between 2006 and 2011. The ball was thrown into the court of the investigating Judges. A decision has recently been announced: 6 executives, the legal entity of France Telecom Orange and its former Head are to face criminal proceedings. The judges cite a number of repeated actions that may have engendered a sufficiently stressful working environment: frequent departure incentives, forced mobility, devaluation of assignments, isolation, etc. The objective here is not to judge the pathogenic nature of the policy adopted at the time by France Telecom Orange, whose survival is due to the active social policy in place today. However, it is surprising to note that Change Management support programmes have not learned the lessons of this controversial case. And yet it clearly illustrates the limits of a commonly used yet rarely questioned method: the Grief Cycle.

Back in 2006

The France Telecom Orange case illustrates almost all the difficulties a public company in a monopoly situation faces when undergoing a sudden strategic transformation and becomes a private company with increasingly fierce competition. Let’s briefly recall the facts. A transformation plan entitled NExT (New Experience in Telecommunications) was designed to accompany the transition phase between 2006 and 2008. Its aim: to achieve a total of 22,000 voluntary redundancies, i.e. one in five employees, and to rapidly transform the company’s culture and activities. 39 victims were identified during the legal proceedings, including 31 suicides or attempted suicides during the period between 2006 and 2011. There are many issues to be considered in this case, including the illegal conduct of management by uncertainty, stress and fear, which can only be fully clarified by the courts.

“Change curve”: management apathy

For my part, I’d like to underline just one point related to the change or grief curve that is so frequently used in Change Management programmes- that of the acceptance of the suffering felt by both blue and white-collar colleagues, superiors and team members, by company executives. According to this well-known cycle that is taught on almost all change management programmes, it was “normal” for employees to feel such anger and depression… They were simply undergoing the process of accepting the “change”… i.e. having to change professions and therefore professional identity (from that of technician to sales support in a call centre, for example), having to change geographical location (compulsory transfers with enormous repercussions on private lives), having to change relational environments (every 3 years, managers had to move according to a mobility policy that was very popular at that time), having to change their managerial culture (particularly with the introduction of private management and increased quantitative performance management methods).


In short, according to the change curve, it was acceptable for people to feel bad… ! Even if the facts relate to events that happened over a decade ago, most people can probably relate to such a climate of passivity and suffering in the face of unwanted change. Rather than engendering a proactive climate, the curve rendered the managers extremely passive. At the start of the decade, the press and the media in general, as well as a number of publications, largely echoed the work carried out by Health and Safety researchers and trade unions concerning the disastrous effects of using the “grief” or “change curve” at France Telecom Orange. Legislation and practices relating to psychosocial risk factors in the workplace have since evolved making it easier to detect human distress signals. However, it must be noted that 10 years after this critical media coverage, the “change curve” (which lists phases of shock, denial, refusal and anger, fear, depression and sadness followed by trial, acceptance, quest for renewal) is still being taught on many change management programmes as if “nothing had happened”… This is really the focus of this article – to sound the alarm for the managers who are still being trained using this curve and the trainers and teachers who continue to use it.

Limits of use within a context of change management

This change curve is a deviation of the work of the psychiatrist and psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose phases of grief model demonstrates the different phases terminally-ill patients go through when coming to terms with their own death. The graph is commonly used by professionals in the field of psychology to help provide support in cases of bereavement (the death of a loved one, divorce, etc.). It is also widely used in cases of disability following a work-related accident or illness that affects the individual’s ability to carry on working. Professionals know that during the phases of rupture, denial, resistance and grief, it is virtually impossible for individuals to consider their future at work. These professionals are therefore highly attentive to the support given during these phases, before consideration is given to orienting individuals towards a new career. Although the grief cycle curve is useful for certain professionals in the field of change management, its limits and even harmful effects are clearly visible. Indeed, it is taught primarily so that managers can avoid worrying about feelings of anger and depression within their teams. This was the case at France Telecom Orange. Let’s hope that the use of this model is finally being questioned by professionals today.