Once Voted SocGen’s Woman of the Year, Former Exec Sues for $6M After Firing

By Gaspard Sebag | March 14, 2019

A veteran executive who was voted woman of the year at Societe Generale SA is suing the bank at a Paris employment tribunal after colleagues accused her of being a disrespectful control-freak and her bosses decided she was unfit for management.

Zeina Bignier, SocGen’s former head of public-sector origination, says she was harassed by her managers and compliance officers and then fired out of the blue in 2016. She’s seeking 5.2 million euros ($6 million), arguing that she’s still suffering from burnout three years after she was dismissed.

“Bignier gave pretty much her life over to Societe Generale,” her lawyer, Valerie Meimoun-Hayat, said at a hearing Monday. “She worked day and night. The dismissal letter hit her like an uppercut.”

While Bignier isn’t suing for sexual discrimination, she is the third female executive to have an employment case against a French bank heard by judges in recent weeks. In separate London lawsuits, two BNP Paribas officials say they were effectively forced out by colleagues because of their gender amid allegations that one of the women was called ” princess” and the other found a witch’s hat on her desk.

A 21-year-employee at the Paris-based bank, Bignier was named Woman of the Year in 2006. In the early 2000s she set up a unit focusing on public-sector origination and even worked on restructuring the Greek debt.

Representatives for SocGen declined to immediately comment after the hearing.

‘More Diplomatic, Calmer’

SocGen lawyer Arnaud Chaulet began his case by admitting that Bignier was a strong performer. But he said concerns about her management style had existed for a long time and intensified in the months before she was fired.

The attorney said that there is a note in Bignier’s 2008 performance review stating she “needs to deal better with her impulsiveness, take a step back, be more diplomatic, calmer and listen to the opinions of others.” But in 2015, when junior colleagues began airing grievances, things came to a head, he said.

Chaulet read out an email a member of Bignier’s team sent her to complain about how she treated him during a meeting on a project.

“When I was about to share my views you violently gave me an order to stay silent by yelling and gesticulating,” the team member said in the email, according to the bank’s lawyer. “Later on during the meeting, you said that I am subservient.”

‘Dimwit’

The junior colleague also alleged she had called him a “dimwit” in front of others.

While her claim is limited to unfair dismissal, Bignier’s case is similar to the two London cases where female managers are accused of being difficult or belittled by colleagues. The cases come at a time when workplace culture is under greater scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

In the Bignier case, Meimoun-Hayat acknowledged her client had a “headstrong personality,” but said the accusations were mostly based on hearsay.

“During a 21-year-career, when there’s tremendous stress, an outburst can occur,” Meimoun-Hayat said. “You have to understand the environment in which Bignier is accused of controlling her teams too much.”

Meimoun-Hayat said the stress of the job became worse as the banking industry became more focused on compliance after financial disasters such as the record loss caused by rogue trader Jerome Kerviel.

‘Kafkaesque’ Compliance

“She doesn’t have a choice: This is the Kafkaesque world of intense pressure from compliance,” Meimoun-Hayat said.

If Bignier’s management style was problematic, Meimoun-Hayat said, SocGen should have provided adequate training. But only one coaching session was organized in 2007.

“There were no other sessions even though she asked for more,” Meimoun-Hayat said. “Why is it that it took 21 years to clue up to an unbefitting behavior? It’s because when you need to get rid of a dog, you say it has rabies.”

Chaulet said that in addition to difficulties with underlings, Bignier had problems with higher-ups, and at one point told her boss that “you lack courage.”

“This behavior is simply abnormal. And now we’re being told that Bignier was the one being harassed?” Chaulet said. “This is a joke.”

Judges at the Paris employment tribunal said they would issue their decision in the case on April 4.

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