Saturday, September 12, 2009

Not happy with your job? Jump out a window.

Suicides are again in the news in France, after a 32-year-old employee of France Télécom who couldn't stand her job threw herself out of a window. A bit unusual, you might say. France Télécom says she had issues.

The problem is that 21 other people at France Télécom have committed suicide for the same reasons. And there have been many suicides at Renault, as well.

In the United States, if you don't like your job, you quit and find another job. But that's not how it works in France. In France, your elders decide for you what career you will pursue while you're still a teenager. You are then shunted into a specific educational program that aims at the selected career path, which simultaneously closes other paths. Once your schooling is complete, you are expected to find a job in the selected career domain and retain it for the rest of your life.

Changing careers is seriously frowned upon in France. If you change careers in the U.S., it might be considered evidence of versatility; in France, a career change on your resume will inevitably elicit the question “You changed careers … what went wrong?” Someone who changes careers is considered a failure, or a rebel. How could anyone not want to do the same job for his entire life?

Even changing jobs is risky. Not only does it make you seem unreliable in the eyes of French employers, but it might be impossible to find a new job after leaving the old one. It takes a very long time to get a job in France. If you are over 40, or if you are changing or have changed careers, or you look or sound like an immigrant, or you don't have a network of well-placed friends to offer you a sinecure, you may not be able to find any work at all. The unemployment rate in France has been high since time immemorial. It's hard to fire people, and it's also hard to get hired (because it's so hard to fire, amongst other reasons).

This all being as it is, it's not surprising that some French people consider killing themselves to be the only escape from job dissatisfaction. You can imagine how dire the situation must be if people are committing suicide. Many French companies are still managed in an authoritarian, eighteenth-century style that is not conducive to worker happiness at best, and leads employees to jump out windows at worst.

Even knowing these things, I'm still astonished that people would kill themselves rather than change jobs. I know most French people are hysterically paranoid about losing their jobs, but still. I've never heard of this happening in the United States. It's pretty weird. It's hard to understand how France can hope to compete in global markets with serious problems like this haunting it.

I'm reminded of a classic example of French cluelessness: the color scheme of Orange, France Télécom's ever-confusing doppelganger. I guess nobody there ever did enough research to discover that orange and black (the company's colors) are associated with Halloween in the United States.

Blog Archive