GPM First
Chapter 47 of Gower Handbook of People in Project Management (978-1-4094-3785-7) by Dennis Lock and Lindsay Scott

Employment Termination: Letting People Go

Lindsay Scott

The old concept of a ‘job for life’ is no longer applicable in today’s corporate world. Job security is threatened increasingly by factors such as the economy; how the economy affects the particular industry sector and organisation; the skill level of the individual worker and whether those skills are in demand by the marketplace. For the project manager, job security, one could argue, is automatically decreased owing to the very nature of projects – temporary, transient and time-bound. A project manager’s current job may not be for life but project management skills and good project managers remain in demand across multiple sectors.


In this chapter I shall consider those times when termination is indicated for a project manager or other project worker for one of the following reasons:

  1. unacceptable performance;

  2. gross misconduct;

  3. redundancy;

  4. constructive dismissal;

  5. unfair dismissal;

  6. discrimination.


The Individual’s Reaction to Being Told

Although some reasons for employment termination are easily understood, when an individual receives the news that they are going to lose their job a whole range of emotions and feelings start. The initial news is just the beginning. In some cases, employment termination is seen as a turning point for a project manager – the opportunity to find a new and exciting challenge.

In other cases, probably in most cases, the news is not welcomed at all and for those individuals it has been likened to the grieving process following the death of a loved one. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who was particularly interested in ‘near death’ studies, proposed a five-stage cycle in her book On Death and Dying (Kübler-Ross, 1969).

Figure 47.1 The five steps of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model


Her model (Figure 47.1) has subsequently been used in relation to job loss. It charts the five stages from the initial moment of job loss:

  1. Denial: believing that the organisation might change its mind, or might have mixed the person’s name up with someone else’s. In this stage the individual experiences shock and might also withdraw from normal situations (home life and so forth);

  2. Anger: the person becomes outraged at the organisation and how they have been treated – even targeting individuals within the organisation. Anger could also spill over to their personal life;

  3. Bargaining: the individual starts to make bargains with themselves (and even with the organisation). This period is focused on the past and is full of ‘what-ifs’, ‘if-onlys’ and self-blame. ‘If only I was better at my job …’;

  4. Depression: this stage in the cycle moves to the present day where acute feelings such as despair, uselessness or worthlessness surface;

  5. Acceptance: accepting the loss, being more hopeful, ready to accept that a change has occurred that will give new opportunities.


The total cycle of the model and time at each stage can vary in length from individual to individual. When conducting unemployment support services for project managers in the UK in 2009–2010, I saw individuals at different parts of this process. Some were still very angry with their previous employers some six months later whilst others were ready to move on, excited at the prospect of finding new opportunities. The same cycle and impact on an individual can occur regardless of the situation or circumstance in which an employee loses their job.

Unacceptable Performance

All project managers will undoubtedly experience performance issues with project team members at some points in their careers. Some project managers might experience difficulties in their own careers that will be considered as unacceptable performance, leading to dismissal from the organisation. Sandler and Keefe (2007) stated that employees often have performance issues in the following nine critical areas:

  1. showing up for work on time prepared to work;

  2. not completing tasks and goals on time, missing deadlines;

  3. disorganised and inefficient work;

  4. building and maintaining skills;

  5. information security – misuse of company data;

  6. harassment;

  7. legal matters – including criminal acts, dishonesty and so on;

  8. drug or alcohol abuse;

  9. discrimination.


Experienced project managers are skilled at dealing with poor performance (most of which fall into categories 1–4 above), taking action to ensure the rest of the team are not affected and the project remains on course to deliver successfully. An informal chat with the individual might be all it takes to get things back on track. Reassessing the resource requirement and the skill set of the individual with a view to providing additional training or support might be required. When time is crucial and opportunities for training are scarce, mentoring or peer pairing might provide a solution.

When the underperformance is serious enough and becomes wholly unacceptable, not just within the project but also for the organisation, a more formal approach is necessary. Dealing with this level of unacceptable performance requires additional support for the project manager from experienced HRM or legal professionals. Project managers should always inform those departments and take their advice.

Procedures for dismissing an individual from an organisation will depend on the employment laws where the organisation operates. For instance, within the UK the Employment Act 2002 sets out disciplinary and grievance procedures (ACAS, 2003), which are used by employers and workers. The procedures cover dismissals arising from unacceptable performance and misconduct. The project manager may be involved in this process owing to his/her close working relationship with a team member. This involvement might include presence at formal meetings, where documented evidence will be required. Alternatively the project manager might be required to work closely with the nominated manager without attending meetings. The process for dealing with unacceptable performance follows a prescribed sequence of steps:

  1. Informal action: discuss the performance shortcomings with the team member and agree corrective courses of action.

  2. Written warning: if performance does not improve to acceptable requirements, send the employee a letter defining the underperformance (what the employee has done and why it is unacceptable). Then proceed to the next step.

  3. Hold a meeting: arrange a meeting with the employee and the appropriate manager(s). The employee has the right to be accompanied at the meeting and to receive in advance any documentation that will be used in the meeting. This meeting allows all the evidence to be shared and gives the employee the opportunity to answer the case.

  4. Actions after the meeting: the employer decides whether further disciplinary action is necessary. Where no further action is necessary the employee is informed of the outcome. If further action is necessary, it is considered best practice to progress to the next step ‘short-term objectives’.

  5. Short-term objectives: now the process has become formal. Short-term objectives are a written instruction which sets out the following:

    • the performance issue;

    • the improvement required;

    • the time when the improvement is required by;

    • the date when the outcomes will be reviewed and also what support the employer will give during this period. The employee must be made aware that this is the first stage of a formal procedure and that failure to comply could result in a final warning and dismissal. If improvements are made from this first formal action, notes are maintained on the employee’s record for a specific period of time (for example, six months) and performance is monitored and reviewed during that time.


  6. Final written warning: if performance does not improve following a period of short-term objectives, the employee is issued with a final written warning (following a further meeting to discuss the lack of progress so far). The letter gives the employee one final chance to improve and warns that if improvements are not made the next stage will be dismissal. If improvements are made, the warning letter remains on the employee’s record for a set period (for example, 12 months) for monitoring and review.

  7. Dismissal: Other options are available before dismissal from the organisation is considered. These include demotion, transfer or reduction in seniority/pay. If no other option is to be considered the employee is informed by letter, stating the reasons for dismissal, the date of employment termination, details about the notice period and also rights to appeal.


This comprehensive process within UK law is not the standard for other countries. For instance, in most US states the ‘employment-at-will doctrine allows for the dismissal of workers for any reason, or for no reason at all’ (Leviter and Muller, 2007) but there is protection against termination due to discrimination.

Owing to the nature of projects and the need for temporary resources on a project team, the project manager has some degree of flexibility when it comes to dealing with unacceptable performance. Contract and temporary staff can be hired – and fired – quickly and without the need for protracted procedures to be followed. There will normally be a notice period that must be honoured (paid in lieu) but the underperforming contract employee can be removed and dismissed from the project that very day.


Dismissals based on unacceptable performance can be a long and time-consuming process for managers. RJR manages a team of six in a large IT organisation in the UK. He noticed that the level of output for one member of the team (let’s call him Jason) seemed to be dropping. Jason performed his tasks, but did so in a lacklustre and mediocre way. Jason seemed to ‘not be firing on all cylinders’. Fortnightly one-to-one meetings were regularly held, so RJR set about preparing for the next informal conversation with Jason. He wanted to understand if there were any underlying issues, perhaps outside work, that might be affecting his work.

The meeting started with RJR telling Jason what had been noticed about his performance, going on to ask if there was anything he would like to talk about. The response was immediately defensive, Jason telling RJR to mind his own business. The team member was adamant that there was nothing to discuss. He felt victimised and asked RJR to ‘prove it’.

For a relatively new manager, preparing for conversations like this can be difficult. Working through likely scenarios and how the discussion will go can only prepare you so far. Sometimes the responses can come as a total surprise (to both the employee and the manager!). In this case RJR decided to let the situation cool, ended the meeting and set another for two days’ time.

RJR sought advice from HRM. He used that department to learn more about the policy for performance management issues and used his own manager as a sounding board to provide further advice on carrying out the next steps.

The second meeting was still an ‘informal meeting’. This time RJR clearly set out the performance issues and calmly addressed the accusations of victimisation by providing clear evidence of the issues. It also became very clear that the employee’s negative attitude also had to be addressed. The outcome was an ‘informal warning’ and the instigation of a six-week period of performance management. This performance management process included giving Jason some reasonable objectives. So some tasks were set with time estimates, and RJR monitored the employee as well as seeking feedback from other colleagues on how Jason was doing.

Jason’s grievances were public knowledge and the team’s initial reaction was to defend their colleague against RJR and the accusations. On reflection, RJR admits that being the manager of a team can be a lonely place when you have to make difficult decisions. Neglecting to take direct action against underperformance makes the situation far worse for everyone in the long run.

A performance review was scheduled after the six-week performance management period. This review was carried out by RJR and a senior manager. It had a formal agenda, starting with the evidence laid out of the continued performance and attitude issues. Jason was asked to respond but he chose to explode with anger and verbally abuse both managers. Clearly the outcomes were becoming more extreme. The review outcome was the first official warning in the form of a letter. Jason was given a further eight weeks of monitoring and review, with the objective that there had to be tangible and sustained improvements during that time.

Throughout the process, RJR’s emotions included:

  • doubt: as a manager did I get my facts right before approaching Jason to talk about performance issues?

  • shock: that the reaction from the employee could be so extreme;

  • annoyance: that the process was distracting, and affecting the rest of the team;

  • frustration: the process was taking so long.

In this case the performance management process for the employee was brought to a swift end when the organisation announced there would be redundancies across the organisation. The team had to be reduced by one member. RJR was advised to take the most obvious option and select the underperforming team member.

Looking back at that time RJR, reflected that the remaining team (although upset that Jason had been given a redundancy package) were happy to get on with the tasks in hand and improved their performance levels.


Gross Misconduct

Employment termination for gross misconduct can be a swift and decisive end to an employee’s career within the organisation. Acts of gross misconduct are serious breaches of an employment contract and can include:

  • fraud;

  • dishonesty;

  • acts of violence;

  • impropriety or immoral conduct detrimental to, and inconsistent with, the organisation’s business;

  • unauthorised possession of company property or unauthorised use of company stationery;

  • conduct of a criminal, dishonest or immoral nature inside or outside working hours which is detrimental to and inconsistent with the company’s business affairs;

  • disorderly conduct which is detrimental to and inconsistent with the company business;

  • use of abusive or threatening language;

  • refusal to obey a reasonable instruction from a superior;

  • duplication of or unauthorised possession of keys or security cards or similar material belonging to the company;

  • being under the influence of drugs (other than medically prescribed drugs) or alcohol during working hours or overtime hours or when otherwise engaged on company business;

  • falsification of any documents or material, including misleading completion of the company’s self-certification form;

  • causing deliberate damage to any property belonging to the company or any employee of the company;

  • disclosure of confidential information to an unauthorised party;

  • unauthorised, illegal or fraudulent use of software and the company’s IT systems;

  • sexual or racial harassment of colleagues.


Part of all project managers’ responsibilities to themselves and to their team members is to ensure that their working environment is safe, free from hazards and in compliance with all national and local laws. When a project manager has team members who have a blatant disregard for their colleagues, company property, or even for themselves, swift action needs to be taken.

In the UK, the disciplinary and grievance procedures already mentioned in this chapter are also used for dismissal by gross misconduct. The process recommends that once an employer considers an employee to be guilty of gross misconduct there should be immediate short-term suspension from the organisation until the facts are established. It is important that the employee is aware that this step is not considered to be disciplinary action at this stage. Best practice indicates that the employee should be given a disciplinary meeting in order to state their case. Following this meeting, if the decision is made to uphold the gross misconduct claim the employee can be dismissed at once.

Disciplinary and grievance procedures are often noted in the contract of employment that each individual signs when starting employment.

Individual organisations may have their own approaches to dealing with gross misconduct dismissals. These can include dismissal without pay and other claims, to such things as outstanding holiday allowance.


Project managers leading teams of diverse individuals clearly have to be ever watchful of how the working relationships form and develop between team members. RAB is a manager of IT projects in Mexico. In a large system development project made up of multiple work-streams, he was responsible for the team of programmers. This team comprised a small pool of junior men and women working alongside a male senior programmer.

A few weeks later RAB was told that the women were unhappy with the senior programmer. RAB interviewed the women and they complained that they had been subjected to sexually expletive language and sexual advances, with the additional menace of being told not to say anything or they would lose their jobs. RAB was unsure about the legal implications of the situation and was hesitant about the next steps without taking formal advice. He spoke directly to his line manager and then consulted the HRM department.

Once the process for dealing with such a complaint was clear, RAB arranged a meeting with the senior programmer. The facts were clearly explained, the legal implications conveyed and the offender was informed of the final decision to be taken – which was instant dismissal. The programmer was given an opportunity to clarify his story but he decided to remain silent. RAB brought the meeting to a close and referred the case and all his paperwork to the HRM department to complete the process.

RAB then had to inform the remaining team that the programmer had been withdrawn from the project. He chose not to elaborate beyond ‘there had been complaints’ in order to keep the team focused and motivated. Upon reflection, RAB felt disappointed that he had not been aware of the problem until it had started to affect the project. He learned from that experience and now makes sure that he has regular meetings with the entire project team to observe how interpersonal relationships develop. He has also become more responsive to the small signals that arise in casual conversations.



Not many project managers would expect their day-to-day work to include uncovering criminal activity. WCS is a senior project manager overseeing construction projects in Africa. Two members of one of his project teams found that working on a construction site presented ‘opportunities’ which proved to be too tempting. As a result materials began going missing from the site. Also there was a phantom worker on the payroll who did not exist.

WCS was able to pick up these discrepancies by studying the weekly materials requirements estimates and from financial reporting on the payroll. Perhaps unorthodox in his approach, WCS turned detective and planted a casual worker among the team, who was able to confirm his fears. The two culprits were identified and promptly dismissed. In addition, the criminal acts (theft and fraud) were deemed serious enough to notify the police. The miscreants were subsequently arrested and charged. The court awarded the company restitution.

WCS maintains that it was the effective monitoring and evaluation procedures in his project that allowed him to spot and locate the discrepancies.



I have to begin this section with a note on the meaning of redundancy. Although a person might talk about having been made redundant, to be precise it is the job that has become redundant, not the individual. If an individual can be persuaded to believe this, some of the damage to his/her self-esteem can be avoided.

Dismissal through redundancy can take many different forms. In project management it could mean the redundancy of one employee or all the project team. In extreme cases it can mean the loss of all jobs when a company is closed down (for whatever reason).

National and local laws in relation to redundancies differ considerably. Within the UK, for example, the government has to be informed if more than 20 people will be made redundant within a 90-day period (ACAS, 2010). Within the US there is no specific law in place to cover redundancies and there are no requirements to pay severance pay (US Department of Labor, 2011). In Australia (Australian Government Ombudsman, 2010) redundancy pay applies to employees who have completed one or more years of service.

Regardless of individual laws it is agreed that redundancies within an organisation are periods of change that produce great stress and anxiety. The key to working through this period as painlessly as possible is, as in so many other things, good communication.

Redundancy announcements from the organisation are usually followed by a consultation phase (dependent on national and local laws). The consultation phase is designed to bring together employers and employees to discuss the issues facing the organisation and the possibility of offering alternative solutions to redundancies. Communication between the parties can go some way to placating the fear and stress that some employees feel on hearing that they could lose their jobs. The consultation period will also include discussions about the amount of redundancy payment available for those who will be dismissed.

When the consultation period is over, if there is no alternative to redundancies the organisation makes the decision to proceed. The options include compulsory redundancy or voluntary redundancy.

Compulsory Redundancy

Compulsory redundancies are those where the organisation decides which employees will face redundancy and ultimately leave the organisation. There is a procedure to be followed that is intended to ensure openness and fairness. Clearly the selection process (deciding who should go and who should stay) is important. In the UK the selection process (ACAS, 2010) includes as basic criteria:

  • skills and experiences;

  • standards of work;

  • attendance and disciplinary records.


ACAS recommends that flexibility, adaptability and an employee’s approach to work should also be included in these criteria.

A company that has to reduce its number of project managers can be expected to prefer keeping its most successful managers. The redundancy selection criteria could include:

  • project management skill levels (through competency assessments or skills-gap analysis);

  • training and accreditations;

  • previous success stories and track record;

  • previous performance reviews;

  • feedback from line managers, peers and customers;

  • contributions to the profession, or advancement of project management in the organisation.


Each of these selection criteria has to be applied fairly to everyone who has the same role and level of seniority. Thus (for example) project managers should not be compared with programme managers; nor should junior project managers be compared with more senior project managers.

Voluntary Redundancy

For some organisations, the consultation period outcome may be the decision to move forward with voluntary redundancies. The organisation gives employees the choice to take redundancy based on all the information provided during the consultation phase. This route is more favourable for organisations in the sense that it can be less demoralising on staff than enforcing compulsory redundancies. Employees might also be incentivised to consider the option when employers produce a more favourable redundancy package for volunteers.

Voluntary redundancies can be counterproductive because they can result in an organisation losing their most experienced staff. Worse, those staff will tend to have the highest severance packages owing to their seniority and length of service. To manage that issue, an organisation will draw up a list of all those who volunteered for redundancy, but makes its own choices from the list. This in turn presents further issues when those volunteers who were not selected are left feeling disgruntled or bitter about the decision.

Redundancies never feel like a win-win situation. For those employees facing dismissal through compulsory redundancy, the experience can be a long and stressful time. Some organisations take steps to minimise distress and disruption by offering ‘outplacement services’ which are designed to help the employee mentally and physically prepare for leaving the organisation. These services offer counselling and coaching alongside practical considerations like CV writing and how to apply for new jobs.

The redundancy period not only affects those selected or at risk from dismissal, but also those employees who remain and consider themselves to be. Noer (1993) introduced the term ‘survivor syndrome’ which proposes that those employees who survive a redundancy period are often worse off than those who leave. Employees facing redundancy are offered severance packages, relocation to other offices, outplacement support and counselling whilst the remaining employees receive little or no support.

A further study from Cranfield University, UK (Sahdev and Vinnicombe, 1998) showed that the remaining employees felt ‘cheated of an opportunity to start a new career or pursue other interests’ when thinking about the employees who had left with severance packages. The remaining employees also felt ‘they had lost the old, original organisation they had joined and hence there was a sense of isolation and low morale; this was accompanied by increase in workload and uncertainty’.


Project managers can be asked to provide information on team members during a redundancy period. This is logical because through past project work each project manager should have a good grasp of the skills and experience levels of their team members. Managing a team through a redundancy period can be tough enough when morale is taking a battering but a project manager is also at risk.

BRD worked as a project manager on IT systems implementation projects in the UK. He found that project team redundancy announcements were only the beginning of a long process that ended with his own redundancy.

One of the organisation’s largest customers was experiencing financial difficulties which led to a current project being axed at its delivery stage. BRD’s project team was working on a final phase for additional functionality alongside a third party. Following the decision to end the project, the project team was notified that there were to be compulsory redundancies.

There were no options for the project team to be deployed elsewhere within the organisation although BRD was informed that his role would be safe for another 12 months. BRD continued to manage the team as the project was winding down.

There were mixed emotions in the team. Some felt anger, others despair and in some cases there was a real sense of wanting to do something proactive like finding out if there were positions available with their third-party supplier. Further anguish was felt by the team in the way the HRM department was handling the process. There was deemed to be a lack of consultation with employees. The consensus formed that, by making piecemeal redundancies, the organisation was avoiding the formal declaration that they were duty bound to report to the UK government when more than 20 people are made redundant at any one time.

Some errors in the consultation process meant that the HRM department had to backtrack quickly on their notification to BRD that his position was safe. He received the call one morning, four weeks after the initial announcements, that he too would be terminated in three months.


Compulsory redundancies are usually the only option when an organisation is facing financial ruin (one exception being a company rescue by merger or takeover). In the short term a project manager faces day-to-day battles as the project team continues to reduce in size. In the longer term it might be considered better to walk away from the organisation before experiencing the bitter end.

FLR is an IT project manager in software development in the US. His account of employment in the final months of an organisation highlights how extreme some environments can be and just how some employees cope when faced with redundancy. Business was affected when the one major customer experienced financial difficulties. All current and future spending was frozen at once, which had an immediate impact on FLR’s organisation. Around 75 per cent of revenues had been coming from this single, failed customer.

Panic ensued, with the organisation trying to create new markets and land new business. When business continued to fail, senior management championed new development, looking for the next big revenue generator, rather than focusing on retaining the customers they still had.

Things went from bad to worse. Creditors were turning up at the office or telephoning demanding to be paid; lawsuits were threatened. Employees of course were aware of the difficulties the company was facing but there was no communication from management. That left the employees to fill in the information gaps. There had been previous lay-offs in the company and many employees were used to that happening. This time employees were guessing what the problems were, even sharing a joke or two about it. FLR described the atmosphere as being ‘like a pressure cooker’ with employees’ inappropriate behaviour such as shouting and yelling from senior managers. Employees were pushed to work harder under extreme time constraints. Worried for their jobs if they didn’t comply, they were working 12- hour days and weekends.

When the redundancies were finally due to be announced, the HR director told FLR the names of those chosen for redundancy. FLR rounded up the selected employees in a conference room away from other employees. The HR director then called the room and, through a loudspeaker telephone delivered the stark announcement ‘Everyone in this room is no longer employed by the company. Your jobs have been eliminated. If you have any further questions, call me’.

FLR said, ‘We put those people through the ringer, making them sacrifice their families and personal welfare, after allowing them to think there was some chance their efforts might help them keep their jobs’.

FLR quit that organisation a few weeks later, when it became apparent that more redundancies would happen and yet the remaining employees were expected to carry on delivering projects with just skeleton resources. FLR reflected that remaining within the organisation after the redundancies carried all the hallmarks of the ‘survivor syndrome’ and he was just relieved to get out and move on. FLR is now working in an environment that he describes as ‘more sane’.




The threat of redundancy can be an emotional time not just for you but also for your loved ones, it can seem like the end of the world; but it also can be seen as a great opportunity that kicks you into doing something that you had previously only ever imagined or talked about.

VAL was a project manager within a worldwide manufacturing organisation who opted for voluntary redundancy after 10 years within the company. The organisation had strategically planned for downsizing its workforce some years before with the proviso that the numbers would be reduced naturally through retirements, hiring freezes and outsourcing. But a few years later they began making much larger redundancies than planned and closed some manufacturing plants.

The changes were swift. The 45-strong project management team was informed that there would be only 20 vacancies available in the new structure. VAL found himself at a real career crossroad. Taking the decision to accept the voluntary redundancy option came after much reflection about not only what did he want next in his career but also thinking about the realities of staying with the company. ‘Organisationally there were a number of issues that I had been debating over the past few years that the restructuring forced me into addressing’. The company culture had changed over the years and there were doubts about continuing support for the project management function. Project management roles had started to be outsourced and there was no obvious career path for project management following the restructuring. VAL sensed that further redundancies would follow as the trend continued towards outsourcing as a strategy to deal with projects.

The voluntary redundancy process was straightforward. The employees were able to elect a representative who provided an influential role in negotiating terms for areas such as a training budget. In addition to the usual outplacement services of CV writing and interview preparation courses there were individual training funds which could be used for project management courses and accreditations.

VAL’s redundancy package was generous giving him enough time to take personal time out yet there were further concerns that he needed to make clear in his mind. Would he go back into a permanent role or should he seek some contract work? Would his project management experience to date be considered as ‘proper project management’ that matched what the marketplace was looking for? How much could he earn? What did he need to be marketable?


Although I enjoyed the time out I had I do not realise that there is a cost. The longer you are out of the work loop, the more your confidence about eventually finding a job shrinks and your paranoia about what jobs you can do does grow. And there would be times when my partner was more confident that I could do an advertised job than I thought I could.

VAL learned some valuable lessons from his experiences and advises:

  • If you are affected by redundancy, do not take that as a personal criticism of you or your work. It is usually a purely business decision driven by a revenue or cost-saving target.

    Try and be logical about the situation. In some respects the tools and techniques that you use in your day-to-day project management can help. Once there is talk about redundancies you need to assess the risk and your response to that risk.

  • Update and maintain your resumé regularly. it is easy to forget achievements and details about the projects you have worked on.

  • If you are with a company for a long period of time there is less emphasis on industry qualifications as you are already there doing the job. But, whether facing redundancy or not, you should never overlook the importance of project management certification. take time to keep up with the project management industry outside your organisation.

  • After redundancy, take job searching seriously. It takes time and self-discipline to find the ideal role. It is a full-time exercise.

  • It helps to share your thoughts and feelings with friends and family during the redundancy period.

  • Remember this is your life. You can only live it once and it is a life that is too short for you to become stuck in a situation where you are not happy.




Constructive Dismissal

Having to resign from your job owing to the unacceptable behaviour of your organisation is ‘constructive dismissal’. Typical cases include a breach of employment contract by the employer for example not being paid, being demoted for no reason, changing working conditions without consent and bullying or harassment. In these cases all reasonable attempts will have been made to deal with the problem and the employee will not have accepted these changes. The end result is that the employee will be forced to leave because of the breach (or after a series of incidents which amount to a serious breach).

Unfair Dismissal

‘Unfair dismissal’ is closely linked to ‘constructive dismissal’. Employees who leave employment owing to constructive dismissal have in effect been forced to resign. Law courts both in the UK and US can rule that in a situation where an employee has been forced to resign this is in effect ‘unfair’ on that employee.

An ex-employee in the UK with at least one year’s service has an automatic right to bring a complaint against the former employer in a tribunal. This action is taken if the ex-employee wants to pursue reinstatement (getting their old job back), engagement (getting a new job with the same employer) or compensation. The decision to take action is not one that should be taken lightly.


OLM was a project manager for a public sector organisation in the UK. He reports his experience of constructive dismissal and the tribunal process as ‘very hard work, very stressful and whilst gaining some financial recompense I did not get my day in court’. This is his story.

OLM had recently joined a new organisation following a long career within another area of the civil service. Almost at once there were organisational and project problems which had to be dealt with including:

  • retirement of the senior project manager;

  • project understaffing;

  • accusations of unacceptable behaviour in the project team;

  • cancellations on project go-live dates.

The difficulties were further compounded by serious breaches of health and safety and working conditions for the project team, coupled with inaction and a lack of accountability from senior management. OLM was acting in the best interests of his team in ensuring the working conditions problem was reported yet conditions deteriorated.

Months later with conditions still intolerable, OLM was called into a meeting with superiors to discuss project progress. Project start-up had finally happened after two previous attempts that were aborted owing to organisational and technical errors. At this meeting OLM was informed that his line manager would be replaced and that he also had one month to increase his performance levels. By contrast, at the same time he also received notification that he had passed his probation period successfully and should look forward to setting targets for the following performance year.

Only a few weeks later OLM was called into another meeting to hear that he was being dismissed because of ‘poor performance’. He was told to collect his belongings and leave the building. A letter would be sent detailing the next steps of a dismissal hearing.

OLM says:


As a project manager I was used to being in control of situations and being able to put into action plans to overcome any difficulties that I might experience, in this case I was powerless as I had very little idea of what was happening. This of course made me more angry and frustrated and also led to my seeking advice from my doctor about managing stress.

OLM was allowed by law to take a representative to the dismissal hearing. But all his choices were blocked by the organisation because they were existing employees. The organisation felt they might be needed to defend the organisation should the process end with a tribunal in the future. Thus OLM attended the dismissal hearing alone. He was informed of the ‘performance issues’ and left one hour later with his dismissal upheld.

Taking the decision to the next stage (the tribunal) meant that OLM had to engage legal advice. It would be a process that lasted 12 months. In order to prepare for the court date, OLM was given a full list of the alleged performance problems on which the organisation had based their decision. For each issue OLM could have a right to reply, stating his version of events. OLM says that ‘A point worth remembering about tribunals is that it is not your word against theirs, witnesses are also called’. OLM had little choice in who to call on for witnesses and was grateful for team members. ‘I cannot imagine the difficult situation it must have put these people in and can only admire their bravery and determination to speak out against their employer’.

As the tribunal date approached it was clear that many of the allegations of ‘poor performance’ were unfounded. Speaking out against serious health and safety breaches had clearly upset management within the organisation. OLM’s case for unfair dismissal never reached court; the organisation settled three days before the hearing was due.

OLM reflects:


I had to take a very long hard look at myself and ask truthfully if I felt that I was at fault and that my actions had led to my dismissal. That’s difficult and stressful. However it is a kind of cleansing process which allows you to draw a line and start to move on. The tribunal process allowed me to see many things that I would not have been allowed to see had I just walked away. In my heart of hearts I still do not know why I was dismissed, but I do know it was not for ‘poor performance’.





Discrimination and Harassment

Every employee has the basic right to conduct their work free of discrimination or harassment from management and co-workers. An employee cannot be discriminated against because of:

  • gender;

  • race;

  • ethnic background;

  • disability;

  • sexual orientation;

  • nationality/national origin;

  • religious beliefs;

  • political opinion;

  • pregnancy;

  • age.


There are two types of discrimination, ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’. The International Labour Organization (2011) describes these as:

  • Direct discrimination is when rules, practices and policies exclude or give preference to certain individuals because they belong to a certain group, for example in job advertisements where it is indicated that only men should apply.

  • Indirect discrimination is when apparently neutral norms and practices have a disproportionate and unjustifiable effect on one or more identifiable groups. For example, requiring applicants to be of a certain height, which could disproportionately exclude women and members of some ethnic groups.


In the developed world, where discrimination laws and policies have been in place for decades, there is still cause for concern. In times of prolonged global and financial problems, antidiscrimination becomes less of a focus for organisations and discrimination cases increase.

Professionals within the project management field are less likely to fall victim to harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The highest number of cases affects low-skilled workers, immigrants, older and younger workers. That said, no one is really immune from the possibility that it could happen to them.

Arras People’s reports captured ageism and gender related discrimination as the most common forms (Arras People, 20062011). In relation to ageism there were concerns from both older and younger project managers. In the older age groups, there was an increase in worries related to finding new work for those over 50 years old, especially when trying to move from one sector into another. With the younger project managers notably it was the perception that as a younger project manager you had to work twice as hard to gain recognition and promotion to positions with more responsibility and challenge.

In 2008 Arras People reported that 34 per cent of women project managers claimed that gender issues had affected their career, compared with 6 per cent of males (Arras People, 2008). Women in project management ‘still dominate the lower-paid bands as either contractors or employees, and are more likely to be in project support roles than leading the field’. Whilst most women reported that they work in a discrimination-free workplace, instances of grievances included:

  • ‘I am convinced that a number of roles have gone to less qualified men where I have not been shortlisted because of fit with the organisation – totally unable to prove anything of course’.

  • ‘In certain corporate cultures it is still harder for a woman to gain the respect of the team. They will challenge you harder than they would a male manager’.


Gender discrimination works both ways and is not considered to be a women-only issue. Respondents – both male and female – demonstrated that through comments such as ‘males can be seen as overcommitted in their approach whereas woman will be seen as focused for the same behaviour’ and ‘the drive to recruit more females meant positive discrimination against males even if males were better qualified’.

Whilst these are all examples of gender and age concerns that a project manager might encounter, only the most serious cases lead to employment termination. Termination by discrimination is often treated as constructive dismissal – where an employee is forced to resign owing to unacceptable behaviour and culture of the organisation. It is when the employee takes the matter to a tribunal appeal that the real facts emerge.


Project managers can find themselves managing an employment termination process as a leader of a project team, or they might become involved in the process themselves. None of us really knows how we might feel if placed under threat of redundancy, or expected to work in an intolerable environment.

The case examples in this chapter show that the right information is crucial to enabling an individual to feel some kind of control in what is generally an uncontrollable situation. Understanding the employment contract, the organisation’s policies and procedures on termination and the local employment laws have helped these project managers navigate through testing times in their careers.

References and Further Reading

ACAS (2003), Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures, London: HMSO. Available at:

ACAS (2010), ‘Redundancy handling’. Available at: [accessed 3 October 2011 ].

Arras People (2006), Project Management Benchmark Report, 1st edn, Manchester: Arras People.

Arras People (2007), Project Management Benchmark Report, 2nd edn, Manchester: Arras People.

Arras People (2008), Project Management Benchmark Report, 3rd edn, Manchester: Arras People.

Arras People (2009), Project Management Benchmark Report, 4th edn, Manchester: Arras People.

Arras People (2010), Project Management Benchmark Report, 5th edn, Manchester: Arras People.

Arras People (2011), Project Management Benchmark Report, 6th edn, Manchester: Arras People Available at: 

Australian Government Ombudsman (2010), ‘National Employment Standards (NES)’. Available at:

International Labour Organization (2011), ‘Equality at work: The continuing challenge – Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work’, presented at the International Labour Conference, April 2011. Available at:

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969), On Death and Dying, London: Routledge.

Leviter, L. and Muller, A. (2007), ‘Termination of employment’, USA International Labour Organization. Available at:

Noer, D.M. (1993), Healing the Wounds – Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalising Downsized Organizations, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sahdev, K. and Vinnicombe, S. (1998), ‘Downsizing and survivor syndrome: A study of HR’s perceptions of survivor’s responses’, Cranfield, Cranfield School of Management. Available at:

Sandler, C. and Keefe, J. (2007), Fails to Meet Expectations, Avon, MA: Adams Media.

US Department of Labor (2011), ‘The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA)’. Available at:

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