Employers can handle insubordination at work in many ways, but often termination seems to be the easiest solution. But HR needs to take a step back and look at the big picture.

Did the insubordination occur due to an unethical demand?

Was the camaraderie in the team so strong that they forgot that their manager is their boss?

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into who is an insubordinate employee, what the company’s policies should be, and if HR needs to mediate.

What is Insubordination?

The simple definition of subordination is defiance of authority. Insubordination, meaning the act of disobeying authority, often occurs at the workplace. Most workplaces do not demand faultless obedience to management directions at all costs.

Professionals are generally allowed flexibility in approaching their jobs. Good supervisors understand that they are the experts in their field. Sometimes, they may even depend on pushback to achieve the best possible outcomes.

We may define insubordination as an employee’s unwillingness to obey an employer’s legitimate and reasonable commands. Such a rejection would jeopardize the supervisor’s respect and capacity to supervise. Therefore, it is a common ground for disciplinary action, including termination of the employee’s contract.

You may wonder, what is insubordination in practice? According to the Society for Human Resource Management, insubordination includes three steps:

  1. The employer gives the order
  2. The employee acknowledges the order
  3. They refuse to follow the order


The Difference between Insubordination, Misbehaviour, and Insolence

Insubordination is sometimes mistaken for misbehavior or arrogance.

Insolence is when an employee mocks, insults, disrespects, or exhibits improper behavior toward a manager or supervisor.

Illegal, harassing, or unethical behavior is defined as employee misbehavior.

Respectful insolence may accompany insubordination, but these terms are not interchangeable.

The most common workplace insubordination scenario is straightforward. The manager instructs the employee to do a specific task. The answer does not agree and refuses to do the task, which brings us to the most common form of insubordination at work. This could be due to outright disobedience, forgetfulness, unreasonable management expectations, or laziness.

Suppose a manager directs an employee to complete a certain number of tasks in the day. However, the employee completes only half. This does not mean that they are insubordinate.

In practice, a manager usually reprimands someone for insubordination in an extreme scenario. An employee who voices their unwillingness to follow orders before a client is more likely to be written up or penalized for insubordination than someone who silently does as they wish.

In other words, courteous insubordination is preferable to outright disobedience. The seriousness of the issue, and whether the employee repeats the action, determine a manager’s tolerance level for non-compliance.

How to Determine Insubordination?

Insubordination can be found when you notice the following events with an employee:

  • Deliberate failure to follow the given directions
  • Comprehending the instructions but refusing to comply
  • Failure or the open refusal to complete a task

All factors may not be present when it comes to recognizing disobedience, but it is essential to apply your judgment in each scenario.

Examples of Insubordination in Employee Behavior

Recognizing the signs of insubordination is the first step toward resolving the problem. Technically, insubordination can be any deviation from management direction. But there must be a deliberate component for one to note and chastise employees. Mere deviation from orders isn’t always enough.  

Intimidation or Harassment

Your company should have a zero-tolerance policy for intimidation and harassment. People need to feel safe and secure at work. Promptly examine any employee who threatens their coworkers or managers. The employee handbook should also include policies and procedures for combating workplace harassment.

For instance, if an employee from a minority feels that another employee is being inordinately aggressive with them, it is necessary to take action. Launch an investigation, make a note in the employee’s file, and assess whether the incident requires more disciplinary action

The severity of the aggression should always be taken into account before taking any disciplinary action. But do ensure that the person filing the complaint is on board with the decision. 

Abusive Language

Cursing while at work is common. If foul language is a regular part of workplace shop talk, it does not necessarily mean insubordination.

Insubordination comprises using harsh language abusively, without provocation, in response to something the management has said or done. Note the action, but keep in mind the context and circumstances surrounding it. But if this persists, it is sufficient grounds for writing up for insubordination and even termination.

Confrontational Actions

People at the workplace will almost always have opposing viewpoints. A direct report arguing with their manager is not insubordination. We may view it as such if they confront and argue with their supervisor before the rest of the team. If someone is aggressive before other employees or publicly disputes managerial authority, it can lead to negative workplace culture. 

Defaming another person, spreading rumors, or making frequent improper comments exemplify confrontational behavior. Note confrontational acts in the personnel file for disciplinary consideration whenever possible.

Subtle Insubordination

Each of these behaviors necessitates a fast and decisive response. Some types of insubordination, on the other hand, are more subtle but equally harmful. Some instances are as follows: 

Sabotage: An employee discreetly goes behind their manager’s back to undertake prohibited activities and incited others to do the same. It might be less visible but is harmful to the manager’s reputation and team morale.

Failure to Perform: An employee is explicitly assigned a task. However, they willfully ignore the instruction or refuse to carry it out.

If the employee has any ethical or legal issues about the order, they should speak to the management immediately and express their concerns openly. 

Cases of Insubordination: Two Practical Examples

Consider the following cases of insubordination

  1. A manager directs an employee to attend an in-person meeting to discuss a performance concern. They state that they had to inform the employee of a certain event four times. But the employee maintains that this was not the case. They do not attend the meeting and, instead, go elsewhere. The manager fires the employee.

  2. An employee denies a manager’s request to perform a task, which is to make a payment. Further, they alter the budget and send an email stating that they will no longer report to this supervisor. The manager terminates their employment due to insubordination.
  3. Nurses advise their coworkers that N-95 masks are safer than regular hospital face masks. They then allege that their management punishes them for disobeying orders. The Nurses Union claims that if they defy hospital rules and wear their N-95 masks, they might be “fired on the spot” for insubordination.

Of course, most cases of insubordination do not make it to the press, courts, or labor boards. Most situations are examples of employee dissent.

Insubordination examples frequently consist of refusing direct, authorized commands; breaking business policy; and poor behavior before customers.

Not every example of justifiable disobedience ends in dismissal. Many organizations use a progressive punishment approach. They forgive many instances of rebellion before terminating an employee, provided the case isn’t severe.

What Is an Insubordination Write-up?

An insubordination write-up is drafted as soon as an incident of insubordination takes place. The managers should begin the report-writing process as soon as possible following the incident. While doing so:

  1. Use a formal write-up for all instances of insubordination
  2. When describing what happened, stick to facts rather than opinions
  3. Describe a plan for improvement and the repercussions of further incidents
  4. Request the employee to sign the document for acknowledgment 

How to Deal with Insubordination and Insubordinate Employees? 

As an employer, you can handle employee insubordination in various ways, ranging from disciplinary action to termination. A concise policy when dealing with insubordination concerns may benefit you.

If you have staff, you should have a policy in place to deal with disobedience. You do not need the policy to dismiss or reprimand an insubordinate employee. But having one ready might be beneficial if you ever need to defend your actions in court.

The grounds for not allowing insubordination are self-evident. Employees need to feel that the management is in charge. Insubordination is unacceptable in the workplace, and you must prepare to take action if it occurs.

Implementing a policy and adhering to it will assist you if you are sued due to your conduct as an employer. You must also be able to prove that you acted appropriately.

Was the Order Valid? 

When you provide directions, ensure the employee knows what you want. In a situation where you believe an employee is disobedient, consider the following points before disciplining them. This is to ensure that punishment is the proper course of action: 

  1. Was the command given verbally?
  2. Did this happen in person?
  3. Was the directive issued in writing?
  4. Who issued the order?
  5. Evaluate the employee’s comprehension of the order.
  6. Were the instructions clear?
  7. Was the employee aware of the directive’s objectives and duties?
  8. Did the employee deny or avoid the order outright?
  9. Was the refusal deliberate?
  10. What would have been an acceptable response to the order?
  11. Could other workplace factors have affected the employee’s conduct? Did the employee not mean to disobey, owing to other reasons?
  12. Was this a regular occurrence in the workplace?
  13. Did a manager or coworker prompt the behavior?
  14. Does the employee regularly engage in defiant behavior?
  15. Have you informed them previously about inappropriate behavior?
  16. Were workers made aware of the policy?
  17. Have you regularly implemented the policy?
  18. Did the management authority issue the order?

Determine if Their Actions are Justified

Determine the order’s suitability. The employee may have a valid cause for not following the instruction. The law protects employees who are dismissed or penalized for disobeying orders that violate the law. In such cases, there are several considerations:

  1. Is the employee’s reluctance to follow the order justified by their legal rights?
  2. Does the employee have to engage in dangerous or unlawful tasks as a result of the order?
  3. Are the regulations or directions connected to the business’s efficiency and safety?

What were the Consequences?

Further, you must evaluate the consequences of insubordinate behavior: 

  1. Does it interfere with workflow or hurt the business?
  2. Are your employee’s or coworkers’ safety affected?
  3. Does it have an impact on the other employees’ morale?
  4. Is the inappropriate behavior due to the employee’s abilities or professionalism?
  5. Can the behavior be corrected simply?

Handling an Insubordinate Employee

If, after evaluating all these factors, you determine that the employee’s behaviors amounted to insubordination, here are some ways to address the matter.

  • Your first reaction to an insubordinate employee may be losing your cool, responding aggressively, or firing them immediately. Although it is difficult to stay calm in a stressful scenario, you must remember to keep your emotions in check.
  • Termination may be the proper answer to an insubordinate employee, but be careful not to dismiss them right away. If termination is suitable, it will be so even after you’ve calmed down. It is never appropriate to react harshly. 
  • Although extreme cases may need instant termination, counseling or a progressive step punishment program is typically the best way to discipline an insubordinate employee.

Your disciplinary policy should provide you some leeway. Therefore, consider the following:

  1. Does an employee’s track record suggest an attitude problem? If this is not the case, you must issue a warning the first time. 
  2. Is the disciplinary action reasonable and proportionate to the gravity of the offense? If the act is significant, a minor or token penalty will not discourage the employee (or other workers) from repeating it. But if you harshly discipline an employee for a minor offense, your objective may backfire and worsen the employee’s attitude and morale.

Frequently Asked Questions on Insubordination

Frequently Asked Questions on Insubordination

When is it not insubordination?

As an employer, you will almost certainly come across the following specific situations of workplace disputes or misunderstandings:

  • An employee misinterprets any instructions and, consequently, does not complete a task.
  • They dispute the ethics or legality of a specific direction issued by a manager and do not carry out the command.

You should express these issues to a higher-ranking employee. If an employee participates in a private chat, they may explain why they did not fulfill a direct command. These instances do not amount to insubordination.

How to preempt insubordination? 

Set clear boundaries, engage with your employees if they disagree with you on something, and respect all laws and ethical norms.

If insubordination does occur, the best course of action is to recognize the behavior right away, give sanctions, document the situation, and be fair.

How to fire an insubordinate employee?

If you are forced to fire an employee for insubordination, they will probably have been found guilty before. Often, you can punish insubordination by issuing a verbal and written warning or suspending the employee without pay. If the behavior persists, you may terminate the employee.