What Is Insubordination In The Workplace?

By Abby McCain
Aug. 9, 2022
Articles In Life At Work Guide

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The professional workplace is unique because, unlike a school or the military, no one is under a legal obligation to obey orders from management.

If you’re in a position of authority in a company, you still need your employees to respect and listen to you, no matter how much you welcome their insight and trust them to do their jobs independently.

Every once in a while, you’ll have an employee defy you, and this is called insubordination.

Key Takeaways:

  • Insubordination is when an employee is outright disobedient or disrespectful to a superior and refuses to do tasks at hand.

  • Insubordination is not an employee refusing to do something unethical or illegal.

  • When handling an employee who is showing signs of insubordination you should hold a private meeting and go over company policy and what is expected of them.

  • The best way to prevent insubordination is to ensure you are not doing anything illegal, have an open door policy and trust your employees, and set clear boundaries to your employees.

What is Insubordination in the Workplace?

What is Considered insubordination in The Workplace

Insubordination is when a manager asks their employee to do something, the employee acknowledges the directive, and the employee then refuses to complete the task or intentionally does something entirely different.

Now, within that definition, there is a wide range of severity of insubordinate behavior. An employee who quietly leaves out a step in a process or who comes to you to politely and respectfully explain why your order is a bad idea is much less of a problem than someone who makes a major purchase after you told them not to or chews out a customer.

Insubordination usually includes the following:

  • An order is given that is reasonable and legal but the employee doesn’t do it.

  • The employee acknowledges the tasks but refuses to do it.

  • An supervisor or manager gives an order either verbally or written for the employee to do.

  • Disrespect shown to higher-ups in the form of mocking or foul language.

When an employee agrees to work for a company, they usually agree to work for a specific set of rules and standards. If they fail to comply with these set rule and standards can result in insubordination. Depending on the situation an employer can give a warning or issue termination for the individual who shows insubordination.

What Insubordination Isn’t

Insubordination can be a legal cause for firing someone, so it’s important to know what is and isn’t technically considered insubordination. There are some actions employees may perform that seem rebellious but aren’t technically insubordinate, legally speaking. These include:

  • Refusing to do something unethical or illegal

  • Refusing to do something that a person who is not in authority over the employee said to do

  • Refusing to perform an unsafe task or work in an unsafe environment

  • Misunderstanding instructions in a way that results in not fulfilling a directive

  • Not completing an assignment because of a lack of resources or expertise

While any of these actions can and likely will result in corrective steps, they aren’t technically considered insubordination.

Examples of Insubordination in The Workplace

Insubordination can rear its head in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Here are a few examples:

  1. An employee signs a contract that you explicitly told them not to.

    You write an email to your employee telling them to hold off on signing a contract until you get approval from the CFO. They respond to you, saying, “Sounds good. Just let me know when you have it,” so you know your message was received and understood.

    An hour later, you get a notification about a newly signed contract: The same one you just told your employee not to sign. It couldn’t have been an accident, so you ask what happened.

    Your employee responds, “The client asked for it again, so I went ahead and sent it.” That is no accident and would be considered insubordination.

  2. An employee doesn’t complete their tasks.

    You assign parts of a project to the members of your team in a meeting and ask for verbal confirmation that everyone agrees to the plan.

    Everyone agrees, so after the meeting, you send out an email outlining each person’s responsibilities and deadlines and encourage them to come to you with any questions or concerns.

    The first deadlines roll around, and you hear from everyone but one person. You ask that employee if everything is okay and if they need anything, and they say all is well and they have everything they need.

    You remind them about the deadline, and they mention that their project will be ready soon. You even clear off the rest of their to-do list for them so that they can focus on this project, but a few days go by, and still nothing. You ask to see progress, and the employee can’t show you any.

    Because they agreed to the directive and have all of the resources they need to complete it and still didn’t do their assigned work, this employee’s behavior can be considered insubordinate.

  3. An employee is dealing with an admittedly difficult customer and begins to shout and curse at them.

    This is against the employee code of conduct that the employee signed, which makes it insubordinate behavior. In addition to that, they ignore your instructions and walk away, adding further to their insubordination.

  4. An employee is sabotaging a project.

    Your team is working on a group project, and while one of your employees has been confirming all of your emails that contain tasks for him to complete, none of them has been getting done.

    This employee is in charge of reviewing the other team members’ work as well, and you start to hear complaints that projects aren’t getting approved or are being returned with unreasonable requests for corrections, slowing down the whole team.

    You decide to check the record yourself, and sure enough, that employee has only reviewed a handful of projects. You ask to see the ones returned for corrections and find that they were perfectly acceptable without the corrections.

    This is a much more subtle form of insubordination, but it is still insubordination.

  5. Employee is failing to show up to work.

    When the employee starts the job, they typically agree to the terms of employment which includes a work schedule. The employer sets expectations for the employees to show up at particular times and days.

    If the employee refuses to come in on the days that they are schedules, that is insubordination and can be grounds for termination.

How to Respond to Insubordination

If one of your employees is being insubordinate, don’t lash out and shout, “You’re fired!” Not only is that an unprofessional way to handle the situation, but it also isn’t usually legal.

If the employee did something egregious or was displaying a pattern of insubordination and isn’t responding to other means of correction, that could very well be the cause for termination, but it’s still not generally a good idea to yell that out in the heat of the moment.

So, if you can’t necessarily fire an insubordinate employee, what can you do? Thankfully, there are a few options. The best one for you will depend on the situation, the particular employee, and your organization’s policies and culture.

  1. Talk to your HR department. You have to have cause to fire someone, and there are a lot of legal landmines surrounding that term, so it’s always best to talk to your human resources department and legal counsel before letting someone go. If you don’t, you could be liable for any lawsuits or other consequences that come from your rash response.

  2. Hold a private meeting. This is the best first step in any interpersonal conflict, as addressing a problem in private with the individual gives you both the opportunity to share your perspectives and come to an agreement.

    Maybe your employee was having a bad day, and that customer was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, maybe they truly didn’t understand what you asked them to do, or maybe they weren’t comfortable with the ethics of what you were asking them to do. If any of these are the case, you won’t know unless you ask.

    Whether or not there was any legitimate reason for their behavior, this meeting is also a chance for you to reestablish what you expect from your employees and to communicate the consequences of their actions.

  3. Clarify policies and expectations. If you ever see an email go out reminding the whole company that only the custodial staff is allowed to use the riding vacuum cleaner, it’s generally a safe bet that someone triggered that reminder by hopping on the riding vacuum cleaner.

    • After all, few executives sit around thinking, “Oh, we should remind everyone not to go for vacuum cleaner joyrides.”

    • Sometimes an act of insubordination can come when employees aren’t clear on the rules or get the idea that management won’t actually enforce them. Because of this, if you experience an act of insubordination, reestablishing boundaries can help prevent it from happening again.

    • By setting clear boundaries, not only do you show your insubordinate employee that you are, in fact, the boss and aren’t going to be pushed around, but you also help your team members know where the lines are and not to cross them.

    • You don’t have to be harsh or micromanage them, but a meeting to remind everyone of your expectations can be helpful in keeping insubordination to a minimum.

  4. Follow a progressive discipline regimen. Your company may have an established plan for this in place, or you may need to make it up yourself. Either way, this is the best way to respond to insubordination.

    If your employee doesn’t respond to your initial meeting and verbal warning and continues to be insubordinate, on the next offense, you might provide a written warning, and then after that, a suspension. If the pattern continues, this might be grounds for termination.

    If you get to that point, having the record of the progressive discipline measures you used will help protect you in court if the termination is contested. Just make sure the discipline is proportionate to the offense.

  5. Keep records. In case things do go haywire in the future, create a paper trail of every step you took to try to correct the behavior. Record even small acts of defiance to show that the behavior is a pattern, and document every meeting you have with the person.

    If you do need to fire an insubordinate employee in the future, these records will help protect you and the company.

How to Prevent Insubordination

  1. Ensure you’re meeting all legal requirements and ethical standards. Rebellious behavior isn’t considered insubordination when the employer is asking an employee to do something illegal or unethical.

    In addition, many employees are more likely to rebel when they feel they’re in danger or that the company isn’t doing the right thing. Ensuring that the organization is following all health, safety, and legal standards may greatly reduce the amount of insubordination you encounter.

  2. Establish an open-door policy for yourself. By creating a culture of transparency and trust, you can provide frustrated employees with a healthy outlet to express their concerns.

    Invite your employees to disagree with you and then give them tools on how to do that. You can set monthly one-on-one meetings where they can bring things up, create a suggestion box, and send out anonymous surveys.

    When someone does push back in an appropriate way, be intentional about responding well so that you encourage that in the future. Publicly praise employees who do this well so that others will see what you value as well.

  3. Trust your employees. Whenever you can, give your team members as much freedom to do their jobs as possible. You hired them because you wanted their expertise, so let them use that.

    Employees who don’t feel micromanaged are generally much less likely to feel the need to rebel and may be more likely to listen when you do give them a directive.

  4. Give clear guidelines and boundaries. Along with trusting your employees, you do need to provide them with clear expectations so that they don’t have to guess what you want from them.

    If you want every publication to go past your desk before it’s released, for example, send out an email to all of your team members and ask them to confirm that they understand this new policy. Then add it to a list of other policies that are accessible to everyone on the team.

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Abby McCain

Abby is a writer who is passionate about the power of story. Whether it’s communicating complicated topics in a clear way or helping readers connect with another person or place from the comfort of their couch. Abby attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she earned a degree in writing with concentrations in journalism and business.

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