Insubordination at Work (Definition & Examples)

In the workplace, if a manager or supervisor gives an employee a direct order, which they then refuse to follow, this is referred to as insubordination. Here is everything you need to know about insubordination so that you can take proactive action, ensuring greater productivity and long-term success. Read more or request an attorney to help.

Insubordination Definition

Insubordination is when an employee does not obey a direct order. Although this can negatively affect a company's overall productivity, there could also be legal ramifications. This is particularly the case when a supervisor makes a request that is both lawful and reasonable, yet not respected.

Although the term insubordination is most commonly used within a military setting, this level of disrespect and disobedience also applies to the civilian workforce. Commonly associated with refusing to perform work-related duties, insubordination may also refer to the following scenarios:

  1. An employee uses inappropriate language or makes offensive comments
  2. An employee is not performing as expected (otherwise known as non-performance)
  3. An employee is being confrontational
  4. An employee is making disrespectful and/or disruptive non-verbal gestures (i.e. rolling their eyes when spoken to)

Insubordination Policy

Of course, each scenario is unique. However, employers need to be aware that insubordination is grounds for termination. They also need to make this clear to their employees, stating that certain types of behavior will not be tolerated. That way, if an issue arises, the employee would have already been aware of the company's insubordination policies.

The most effective way to do so is to have a human resources officer discuss what exactly insubordination is during orientation. Related policies should also be outlined within the company's employee handbook. By reducing any possible lack of clarity, an employer can better protect themselves against an insubordinate employee.

In most cases, termination will not be the first course of action. This is why a specific procedure should be followed in regards to disciplinary action in the workplace. Depending on how serious a situation gets in relation to insubordinate behaviors and circumstances, some of the potential consequences prior to immediate termination include:

  1. A verbal or written warning
  2. A formal meeting (between the employee and someone of authority) to discuss the situation
  3. A short-term suspension
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Insubordination Examples

As discussed, insubordination can be handled in a number of ways. However, the most direct consequence is termination. Since insubordination typically occurs regardless of company ethics or employee camaraderie, it is also best to remind an insubordinate employee of the company's compliance policies.

Regardless of the situation or issue, the company's human resources department should be notified and employee disruptions should be documented.

In the workplace, the most common instances of insubordination include:

  • Refusing to obey a supervisor's command
  • Being disrespectful to those in an authoritative position (i.e. using offensive, vulgar language and/or language that mocks the manager/supervisor)
  • Mocking or questioning management decisions, causing disruption in the workplace
  • Non-verbal cues which indicate disobedience and/or disrespect

Although managers and company executives should not make hasty decisions in such cases, it is critical that they do not delay disciplinary action. If they do, this may negatively influence other employees, as they believe that such behavior will be tolerated.

How to Spot Insubordination in the Workplace

In order to detect whether or not insubordination is occurring in the workplace, be mindful of the following circumstances:

  • Direct orders are intentionally being ignored
  • An employee is aware of what's expected of them and understand the instructions given, but refuses to comply
  • An employee outright refuses to complete a task (non-performance)

More examples of insubordination

  1. When refusal plays a role, an employee will understand the order, yet simply refuses to obey it. In this case, the order will be lawful and will not impact the employee's safety or ethics. In comparison, if an employee believes that something is concerning in terms of their safety or ethics, they should discuss such variables with their supervisor. At that point, they may be able to legally refuse the task-at-hand.
  2. When disrespect is an area of concern, disagreements may arise. If an argument occurs in the workplace (between an employee and a supervisor), and following that occurrence, the employee refuses to settle the disagreement, this would be classified as insubordination.
  3. There are also instances of inappropriate behavior, which may occur when an employee acts in an abusive or unacceptable manner. This may occur when an employee uses inappropriate language when directly speaking with a supervisor or in reference to the superior. In this case, the supervisor didn't provoke the language and a heated argument did not occur. Once this situation has calmed down, if the employee continues to speak in this manner, they may be terminated.
  4. Immediate termination may occur if an employee tries to intimidate or harass a supervisor, as this type of behavior should not be tolerated. If no action is taken, this can send the wrong message to other staff members.

Insolent behavior may also be an issue in relation to the following circumstances:

  • An employee and supervisor can not maintain a working relationship. In turn, this has begun to impact the workplace environment, reducing efficiency and productivity.
  • Based on an employee's actions, a supervisor's credibility has been negatively impacted, reducing their ability to effectively perform their role.
  • An employer suffers losses due to an employee's actions (i.e. loses finances, reputation, or business interests).

What Is NOT Considered Insubordination?

In contrast, although there are certain instances in the workplace that are not desirable, they may not be considered examples of insubordination. Employers are bound to come across a range of potential conflicts and misunderstandings in the workplace, which is they need to be mindful of the following circumstances.

  1. An employee did not complete a task because they misunderstood the instructions
  2. An employee did not perform a task because they were concerned with the legalities and/or ethics of the command (if this is the case, an employee should discuss their concerns with another authority figure)
  3. An employee initiates a private conversation in regards to why a direct order was not followed

How to Respond to Disobedience

Insubordination rules and guidelines vary from state-to-state. However, regardless of the location, it is well-established that employees must follow reasonable orders within the workplace. This includes employees that hold a supervisory role. The next steps will depend on the managers and/or employer.

Whether termination or some other form of discipline is the desired action, there are a number of options available. For example, an employer could send the employee home that day and give them a first and final warning. In other cases, an employee may require some level of support if substance abuse or personal issues impact their behavior.

Case-By-Case Basis

Be mindful of the following:

  • Although there should be an insubordination policy in-place, there are unique circumstances. This is why each situation should be handled on a case-to-case basis. For example, if an issue is minor and is a first-time infraction, a written warning would be appropriate. In contrast, if harsh measures were taken in response to a minor incident, this could result in workplace disharmony.
  • When termination is the desired course of action, employers can expect a response and further action may be required. For example, a former employee may challenge a company's decision and threaten legal action. They may also request unemployment benefits. Always apply the rules consistently, regardless of who the employee is. Be prepared and respond appropriately.
  • Regardless of the situation, effective communication will be imperative. When giving commands, the best way to communicate is via written documentation. This will outline what should be done, by who, where, and when. Also, be sure to properly communicate company policies (i.e. within handbooks and/or agreements).
  • The same policies which apply to employees also apply to managerial staff. Once again, this will ensure that favoritism is avoided. If any disharmony occurs between managers and staff members, this needs to be addressed immediately. Always listen to both sides before taking action.
  • Always consider the circumstances and understand the situation. For example, if workplace inefficiency is an issue, this could impact an employee's ability to perform requested tasks. For example, if an employee has taken on the duties of three employees and can no longer handle the workload, this needs to be taken into consideration. Stress is another common factor, which is why it's important to listen to what the employee has to say.
Please note: The best thing to do in this situation is to listen to the company's most valued employees. They will often provide greater insight into any potential conflicts. Understanding the source of dysfunctional is imperative.

Acceptable Grounds for Termination

Although there are gray areas in regards to insubordination, which often require an employer's best judgment, there are clear-cut situations when termination is 100 percent acceptable.

  • If managers or company owners are already concerned with the level of disrespect and an employee intentionally dismisses orders or misses deadlines, termination may be required.
  • If the insubordinate employee refuses to take responsibility or continues to give multiple excuses are to why their work is incomplete, termination may follow.
  • When work is not completed and an employee blames others for their lack of initiative, termination may be considered.
  • Lastly, if an employee is always late or simply disregards their work schedule, which then impacts workplace productivity, this is solid grounds for termination.

Bottom line: More often than not, insubordinate employees will showcase behavioral patterns across time. If you have issued warnings and commented on their behavior in the past, yet they do not try to correct themselves, termination is the appropriate option.

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