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Revelations that Ikea spied on Its employees stir outrage in France

Nicola Clark
Remy Gabalda | AFP | Getty Images

Virginie Paulin's voice still trembles when she recounts how she was fired from what she considered her dream job at Ikea in France.

An Ikea store in Saint-Herblain, a suburb of Nantes, in western France.

"I felt total incomprehension, I was stunned," she said. As a 12-year employee of the Swedish home furnishings group, Ms. Paulin had risen to become deputy director of communications and merchandising for Ikea's two dozen stores across France.

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But then she was forced out after a year's medical absence — and after what was subsequently revealed to be an investigation of her by Ikea's French headquarters, which suspected she was not as sick as she had said. The company was said to have provided a private detective with her Social Security number, personal cellphone number, bank account details and other personal data.

A regional court in Versailles, near Paris, is now examining whether Ikea executives in France broke the law by ordering personal investigations — not only of Ms. Paulin but of hundreds of other people over the course of a decade.

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A review of the court records by The New York Times indicates that Ikea's investigations were conducted for various reasons, including the vetting of job applicants, efforts to build cases against employees accused of wrongdoing, and even attempts to undermine the arguments of consumers bringing complaints against the company. The going rate charged by the private investigators was 80 to 180 euros, or $110 to $247, per inquiry, court documents show. Between 2002 and 2012, the finance department of Ikea France approved more than €475,000 in invoices from investigators.

The case has caused public outrage in France, not only because of the company's large consumer following in this country — Ikea's third-largest market after Germany and the United States — but because the spying cases occurred in a country that, in the digital age, has elevated privacy to a level nearly equal to the national trinity of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité.

So far, there have been no accusations that such surveillance occurred in any of the other 42 countries in which Ikea operates, and it remains unclear why the French Ikea unit is purported to have engaged in it so extensively. Very little of the surveillance yielded information Ikea was able to use against the targets of the data sweeps. But court documents indicate that investigators suspect that Ikea may have occasionally used knowledge of personal information to quell workplace grievances or to prompt a resignation.

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"It is hard to conceive that this kind of thing happens in a democratic society like France," said Sofiane Hakiki, a lawyer representing Ms. Paulin and several unions that have filed civil complaints against Ikea in the affair. "This is not Soviet Russia."

The company, which the court required to post a bond of €500,000 euros last month, conducted its own review of the matter last year, after a series of internal emails detailing spying were leaked to the French news media. That internal inquiry resulted in the firing of several executives, including the former chief executive, Jean-Louis Baillot. But Ikea has otherwise declined to comment publicly on specifics of the claims.

Last month, the company's current chief, Stefan Vanoverbeke, and financial director, Dariusz Rychert, were questioned along with Mr. Baillot for 48 hours by the judicial police before being placed under formal investigation. That set in motion a process in which the next step, if it comes, would be the filing of criminal charges.

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The three executives, along with nine others, are suspected of breaking the law by either knowing of or actively participating in the systematic collection of individuals' personal information, including criminal histories, automobile registrations and property records, officials say.

Lawyers representing the three executives declined to comment, citing the continuing investigation, which could still take months to conclude.

But the Versailles court has already interviewed dozens of witnesses. And its agents have searched the offices and homes of several former Ikea employees, private investigators and even police officers suspected of having provided privileged information from government databases.

In Ms. Paulin's case, when she received her termination letter in February 2009, the official reason was Ikea's urgent need to fill her post with a permanent replacement. She had been unable to work for more than a year after she learned she had hepatitis C in early 2008.

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In a recent telephone interview from her home in western France, Ms. Paulin, now 53, said she was unaware during her absence that her bosses had doubted the severity of her illness, for which she still receives treatment.

In accordance with French rules, Ms. Paulin had submitted a series of medical certificates to Ikea's human resources department. She had also met regularly with her local Social Security office, which had approved the extension of her leave and even granted her permission to travel, on more than one occasion, to an apartment she owned in Morocco.

Moreover, she had maintained contact with a number of colleagues and told them of her intention to resume her duties as soon as her doctor would allow it.

"I had made a large investment in my professional life at Ikea," Ms. Paulin said. "Perhaps it was too large. But my job was a big part of my identity, and I was proud of it."

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So when she learned that the company intended to let her go, Ms. Paulin hired a lawyer.

In April 2009, Ms. Paulin was invited to meet with Claire Héry, Ikea's head of human resources for France. When she arrived at that meeting, she was surprised to find that the French unit's chief executive at the time, Mr. Baillot, was also present.

The two executives, Ms. Paulin said, accused her of fraudulently exaggerating her illness — although she said they offered no evidence to support their claims.

She said she left the encounter confused and distraught, feeling "robbed of my self and my reputation." A few days later, Ms. Paulin said, she attempted suicide.

Ikea, through its lawyer, Emmanuel Daoud, declined to comment on Ms. Paulin's account of the meeting.

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Ms. Héry, the human resources chief, was among the executives dismissed in 2012, although she is not a target of the court's investigation. Her lawyer, Olivier Baratelli, did not respond to emailed questions seeking comment.

Gérard Vergne, a lawyer for Mr. Baillot, declined to comment. Mr. Baillot left Ikea France in December 2009 for a job within the parent company's management team before being dismissed last year in the wake of the spying claims.

Even after the meeting, Ms. Paulin pressed her case, and in 2010 a judge ruled that her firing was "devoid of real and serious justification."

She did not seek reinstatement, but was awarded nearly €60,000 in compensation. Still, she said, the reason her bosses had leveled their accusations at her remained a mystery.

The matter might have ended there, were it not for a cache of company emails that were leaked to the French news media in early 2012.

The emails, now part of the court record, seemed to indicate extensive personal surveillance by Ikea in France dating back as far back as 2002.

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The trove of messages, many apparently written by Jean-François Paris, the French unit's head of risk management, exposed details of Ikea's investigations of Ms. Paulin and dozens of others. Mr. Paris was dismissed after the company's internal review and is named in the judge's investigation.

Mr. Paris has acknowledged his role to French investigators, said his lawyer, Étienne Bataille. But Mr. Paris insists that his activities were approved by top managers of Ikea France — and that on several occasions they were conducted at management's direction. "There is no question it was a widespread practice," Mr. Bataille said of the spying.

One of the emails from Mr. Paris, dated Dec. 11, 2008, was addressed to a private detective, Jean-Pierre Fourès. He was asked to confirm whether Ms. Paulin had traveled to Morocco over the preceding several months and if she owned property there.

Mr. Fourès's reply confirmed both to be true and included a startling attachment: scanned images from Ms. Paulin's passport, showing her Moroccan entry and exit stamps. To obtain those, the court documents show, Mr. Fourès had arranged for someone posing as an employee of Royal Air Maroc to persuade Ms. Paulin to fax copies of her passport in order to claim a free ticket offer.

Didier Leroux, a lawyer for Mr. Fourès, did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the subject line "dirty scam," Mr. Paris described Ms. Paulin as "a person who has been on medical leave for several months" and provided the dates, "obtained through outside sources," of her easyJet flights. He also asserted that Ms. Paulin had made the trips without informing her Social Security office.

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Citing Ms. Paulin's stature as a senior manager, Mr. Paris wrote, "We cannot tolerate this situation." Subsequent messages to the detective also disclosed details of Ms. Paulin's personal bank account.

"Until I saw those emails, I had not understood the depths of their suspicion, the paranoia," Ms. Paulin said. "They really believed I was playacting."

In transcripts of police interviews, Mr. Paris and his colleagues in the risk management department acknowledged receiving frequent requests from Ikea store managers across France for criminal background checks, driving records and vehicle registrations — though only a fraction of those inquiries uncovered a notable offense. Usually the requests were limited to one or two people after a theft or a complaint of harassment among employees.

But sometimes lists containing dozens of names of employees or job applicants were submitted for vetting, and then forwarded to one of a handful of trusted private investigators for processing.

The company has publicly expressed regret that certain managers took actions that were "contrary to our values and ethics standards" and says it has included respect of individual privacy in a new code of conduct.

Beyond that, however, Ikea has remained largely silent. "No one has ever called or come personally to apologize for what was done to me," Ms. Paulin said. "That's the gesture I would have expected — not some big investigation. But I've never gotten that."