VERSAILLES, France — The USB stick mysteriously appeared from an unidentified deliveryman. It held an explosive trove: a cache of startling emails detailing an intricate effort by Ikea executives in France to dig up information on employees, job applicants and even customers.
“Tell me if these people are known to the police,” read one executive’s message to a private investigator, seeking illicit background checks on hundreds of Ikea job applicants.
“A model worker has become a radical employee representative overnight,” read another. “We need to find out why.”
A decade after those emails surfaced, they are at the center of a criminal trial that has riveted public attention in France. Prosecutors are accusing the French arm of Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings giant, and some of its former executives of engineering a “system of espionage” from 2009 to 2012.
The alleged snooping was used to investigate employees and union organizers, check up on workers on medical leave and size up customers seeking refunds for botched orders. A former military operative was hired to execute some of the more clandestine operations.
The case stoked outrage in 2012 after the emails were leaked to the French news media, and Ikea promptly fired several executives in its French unit, including its former chief executive. There is no evidence that similar surveillance happened in any of the other 52 countries where the global retailer hones a fresh-faced image of stylish thriftiness served with Swedish meatballs.
unsuspecting customers who tangled with Ikea over big refunds. He insisted that he had never broken the law in gathering background material.
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Some Ikea managers tapped police sources to gain access to government databases for job applicants at up to nine stores, seeking records on drug use, theft and other serious offenses. People whose files turned up “dirty” would not be hired, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers. As in the United States, applicants in France must consent to background checks.
The surveillance encompassed career workers. In one case, Mr. Fourès was hired to investigate whether Ikea France’s deputy director of communications and merchandising, who was on a yearlong sick leave recovering from hepatitis C, had faked the severity of her illness when managers learned she had traveled to Morocco.
He engaged a contact to pose as an airline worker and ask the 12-year Ikea employee, Virginie Paulin, to furnish copies of her passport stamps to win a free ticket offer. The passport confirmed her travel to Morocco.
“Excellent!” Mr. Baillot, the chief executive at the time, wrote in an email to Mr. Paris and Claire Héry, who was the director of human resources. “We’ll do more checks after Christmas to corner her,” he wrote. (Ms. Héry’s lawyer, Olivier Baratelli, said there was no evidence she had been aware of systemic surveillance. The charges against her were dropped.)