Harassment Allegations and Fear Haunt European Investment Bank
(Bloomberg) -- The news came as a shock — another suicide at the Luxembourg headquarters of the European Investment Bank, the second on the premises in seven years.
This one, on a cold, wet morning in December, involved a well-liked 51-year-old former semi-pro basketball player who worked as a back-office assistant at the European Union financial institution. Police didn’t give any reason why she jumped from a balcony at the bank. But elected staff representatives who had been talking to management about mental health issues for years, even before an intern fell to her death in the atrium of another building on the campus in 2013, were alarmed.
“Each suicide case is one too many,” the representatives, who act as a liaison between employees and management, wrote in a Jan. 12 letter to bank President Werner Hoyer. But two suicides on EIB premises “in such relatively short time span is a clear red light the bank can no longer ignore.” They called for an investigation to analyze “the deep root causes that lead certain staff to consider suicide.”
The representatives suspected a link between the two deaths and workplace conditions for a reason: In 2016, two psychologists hired by the bank to counsel employees had warned of “suicidal risk” among staff in an internal report reviewed by Bloomberg News. They also described widespread allegations of harassment, some of it sexual, and an “unhealthy climate of fear” that discouraged complaints.
Established at the birth of the EU in 1958, the bank is the funding arm of the 27-nation bloc, disbursing hundreds of billions of euros for development projects that further its stated goals. Among them: promoting gender equality. But behind the EIB’s shiny exterior and its lofty policy aspirations, there’s another story. Interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees, court filings and internal documents paint a picture of an institution where accusations of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination largely go unpunished. It’s a story that’s been told in recent years at other financial institutions in Europe and the U.S.
The employees, about half of them still working at the bank, said they had either witnessed or been victims of harassment, including what they considered psychological abuse. Some said they had experienced inappropriate comments and unsolicited sexual advances. Most asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. They said that women, who make up about half of the 3,500 staff, sometimes lost out on promotions to less qualified male colleagues or found their careers derailed after having children. Ten said working at the bank had driven them to consider taking their own lives. A few said they knew of other employees who’d died by suicide off campus, but details couldn’t be independently verified.
In a 17-page response to questions from Bloomberg, the bank said that there was no evidence linking either death to work-related issues and that it couldn’t comment about any suicides that may have occurred elsewhere that they didn’t know about. It said it has made “considerable progress on gender equality” in recent years and transformed its policies and procedures, including training managers, providing counseling and offering external mediation to resolve staff conflicts. A “psychosocial risk assessment” of employees is planned for this spring, the bank said, before a new mental health plan, including suicide-prevention training, is put in place later this year.
“We have come a long way,” Maj Theander, director general of personnel, said in an interview, acknowledging some shortcomings during the bank’s rapid expansion in recent years. “We strengthened the whole concept and culture around well-being.”
Theander pointed to a 2019 staff survey in which 78% of employees said they were proud to work for the bank. But the same survey, whose results were seen by Bloomberg, showed only 19% agreed with the statement that the bank’s management committee led by example in terms of ethics and integrity, and only 16% said decisions on staffing matters were fair — low scores that EIB Secretary General Marjut Falkstedt blamed on a “communications gap.” There were no questions specifically about harassment or mental health.
Current employees interviewed by Bloomberg say not much has changed since 2016, when the report by staff psychologists described a workplace riven with conflicts, where employees unclear about what their jobs entailed were led by poorly trained managers ill-equipped to meet rigid productivity targets. That was contributing to cases of burnout, severe stress and other mental health issues, according to the report, which wasn’t made public.
Onsite psychologists have compiled a report every year since 2011 that is sent to the bank’s personnel department detailing cases they worked on. Reports since 2016 reviewed by Bloomberg say the bank has made progress responding to complaints, but they still refer to harassment, fear of speaking up and a bad working environment.
A majority of the employees interviewed, including those still at the bank, described efforts to minimize or discourage complaints and sometimes punish those who come forward. That was the case with Paul Van Houtte, a former bank economist who said he was sitting on a sofa in a communal area at the EIB in 2013 when he heard a thud, saw a body lying on the floor and went to help.
Van Houtte, who was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and hasn’t worked since, sought compensation for emotional distress. The bank paid him €136,500 ($163,000), then accused him of lying about witnessing 24-year-old intern Ofelia Beke’s suicide and started investigating him. They gave their findings to prosecutors who brought fraud charges, and the insurance company sought to get the money back. In February, a Luxembourg judge cleared Van Houtte of wrongdoing. The EIB declined to comment.
“All of this has ruined me mentally, professionally and financially,” said Van Houtte in an interview. “They tried to portray me as a fraud, even though I was traumatized by what I had seen.”
A Luxembourg investigative magistrate in 2018 declined to pursue a complaint brought by three members of Beke’s family alleging involuntary homicide in connection with her death. The magistrate said in a court order seen by Bloomberg that the EIB and its managers were immune from prosecution for actions taken as part of their work. He added that the police had ruled the death a suicide and that no evidence of unintentional homicide or even non-assistance to a person in danger had been uncovered. The court declined to comment on the order or the details of the case, which aren’t public, but confirmed that an appeal is pending.
A spokesman for the bank called the intern’s death an “unspeakable tragedy” and said “the family’s desire to hold someone accountable is understandable.” But he said the bank wasn’t involved in the case and the police ruled out “a possible element of manslaughter or violation of an obligation to provide assistance.”
Although it is one of Luxembourg’s largest employers, the EIB isn’t subject to local labor laws. It’s an EU entity, governed by a board made up mainly of finance ministers, and employees who want to pursue legal claims are forced to take them to the European Court of Justice. Doing so can easily cost tens of thousands of euros in legal fees if the claimant loses.
That’s what one employee did in 2016 after the bank dismissed her complaint about sexual harassment by a male boss. A panel of three outside specialists with legal or medical backgrounds appointed by the EIB to investigate said there were no witnesses to the alleged acts and recommended rejecting the claim, according to court filings that didn’t identify the victim or her manager.
The panel, set up under the bank’s Dignity at Work program to investigate harassment complaints, described the woman as motivated by a desire to advance in her career, the filings show. It called her behavior manipulative, said a traumatic break-up might have made her unstable and suggested she adopt a more positive attitude.
The EIB president has the final say, and Hoyer, 69, who came to the bank in 2012 after a career as a German lawmaker and academic, followed the panel’s recommendation. The Court of Justice annulled his decision in 2019 and said the woman’s right to a fair hearing had been violated. It didn’t rule on the substance of her complaint. The woman is still working at the bank. The EIB spokesman said the bank is “committed to the correct implementation of the judgment” and is in talks with the “staff member in question in order to ensure that the matter is concluded in a mutually acceptable manner.”
The EIB said in its response to questions that it has never fired anyone accused of harassment. Of the 21 formal complaints alleging harassment received from staff since 2013, five were rejected because they were deemed not to involve harassment, didn’t present evidence harassment had taken place or, in one case, didn’t involve the bank. The others were investigated by external panels. Those investigations resulted in findings of harassment in only two cases, the bank said. One led to a written reprimand, while the other harasser was asked to write a letter of apology to the victim. There have been two investigations of alleged sexual harassment in the past decade, the bank said. No evidence was found to back up either claim.
Theander said the bank has “zero tolerance for harassment” and is trying to promote a “speak-up culture.” Those views were echoed by Falkstedt, the secretary general. “The efforts we have made to put all these new procedures and policies in place over the years is to facilitate this type of behavior, where we can all feel at ease,” she said. “I’m truly sorry if there are still colleagues who don’t feel it, who don’t feel the change.”
The bank says on its website that it aims to “embed gender equality in everything we do,” but most women work in junior or support roles, as they do at many other financial institutions that are dealing with issues of discrimination and harassment. The EIB has made progress in recent years increasing the number of female managers to 30% from 8% in 2000. Two women sit on the nine-person management committee. There were none between 2014 and 2018.
The psychologists said in their 2016 report that more than three-quarters of the employees who sought counseling were women, and that two-thirds of them said they were experiencing work-related problems. Current and former employees interviewed by Bloomberg described a misogynistic culture. Some said they felt penalized for starting families. One said her temporary contract wasn’t renewed after she told her manager she was pregnant.
Another former employee accused a male executive of demanding sexual favors in order to advance her career, emails sent to the bank’s personnel department and seen by Bloomberg show. After writing to Hoyer asking for protection, the woman was moved to another office. The man remained in his job. When the woman told colleagues the reason for her departure — that she claimed she was sexually harassed by her boss — the bank investigated her, the documents show. She was fired in 2019 for insubordination and making false accusations. The document didn’t provide details.
A number of people filed complaints about another manager, accusing him of bullying and harassment. One woman accused the man of making unwelcome gestures that she described as “a serious form of sexual harassment,” according to emails reviewed by Bloomberg. Those included hugging her in an inappropriate way, peppering her with sexually suggestive comments and attempting to kiss her on the mouth, two people familiar with the complaint said. They said the woman’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2017.
Another woman on the team filed a complaint against the same manager in 2018 alleging he had psychologically harassed her for years, including when she was pregnant, according to emails sent to the personnel department and documents seen by Bloomberg. The manager would routinely humiliate her, sometimes in front of colleagues, and question her ability to do the job while being a parent of small children, the documents suggest. After complaining, the woman was moved to another team. The EIB didn’t provide comment about this case or the others.
The employee who died by suicide in December, Carine Djeziri, worked at the bank for 10 years, most recently in the back office of its treasury department. Before that, she played basketball for Basket Esch in Luxembourg’s Total League. An official at the club said the five-foot-nine swingman was one of the more experienced players and helped mentor others. She also wrote about basketball for a local newspaper, Le Quotidien. The sports editor there, Denis Bastien, remembered her as witty, a good writer and a pleasure to work with.
“Carine’s fighting spirit helped her pass through numerous battles throughout her life and to shine at sports,” some of her colleagues at the bank said in a note published in an internal newsletter after her death. “We will not forget her and she will remain, for many of us, a source of inspiration.”
It’s not known why Djeziri killed herself, or if she left a note. Colleagues, friends and family members either declined to comment, didn’t respond to messages or couldn’t be located. Suicide-prevention experts say motives are often complex and difficult to comprehend. But three psychologists interviewed by Bloomberg said the location of her death suggests work may have been a factor. The psychologists, who didn’t know Djeziri, said she may have wanted to send a message to her colleagues or employer.
“The place where a suicide happens is not neutral,” said François D’Onghia, a psychologist and coordinator of Luxembourg’s national suicide-prevention program. “Some suicides happen as an act of vengeance, but it would go too far to say that all suicides happening at work are caused by the workplace.”
Workplace suicides in the U.S. reached a record of 307 in 2019, up from 229 in 2015, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which didn’t provide any reason for the increase. There are no comparable data in Luxembourg or the EU, but there have been several notable cases in recent years. In 2014, an employee at JPMorgan Chase & Co. jumped to his death from the top of the bank’s London office. A year later, a lawyer at the European Commission killed himself at the institution’s headquarters in Brussels.
Hoyer, in a note posted on the bank’s intranet shortly after Djeziri’s suicide, referred to her death as a “tragic loss.” But the staff representatives, in their letter to Hoyer, which was also shared on the intranet, wanted action. They warned of “a large number of colleagues at risk of suicide” and said it was time to “take all the necessary steps to avoid that the EIB becomes a suicide cluster.”
The response came from Theander, the head of personnel, who questioned the assertion that a large number of employees were at risk. “We take this opportunity to stress again that we care deeply for our staff,” she wrote on Hoyer’s behalf on Feb. 5, citing steps the bank had taken to improve employee well-being and saying it is considering other ways to support people in distress, including a hotline. “We do our utmost to protect our colleagues’ health in the best way possible.”
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