Insubordination at Work: Examples & How to Address It
In the modern workplace, where collaboration and respect are essential for success and productivity, insubordination emerges as a disruptive force that can challenge any organization. This type of behavior creates conflict, destroys standard workflow, and compromises teamwork.
While a certain degree of individualism and critical thinking is valued in today’s work culture, insubordination goes beyond healthy disagreements among teams. It can escalate to bigger troubles and headaches for employers and managers.
This article will define insubordination and its impact in the workplace, the different types and examples of insubordination, and how to address it when it happens.
What is insubordination?
The impact of insubordination at work
Causes of insubordination
How to address insubordination at work
Sample write up for insubordination
What is insubordination?
Insubordination is a deliberate act of defiance, disobedience, or refusal to follow a manager or employer’s instructions, orders, or authority in a professional or work-related context.
It occurs when the employee acknowledges and understands his employer’s instructions but refuses to carry out the order, explicitly or through nonperformance.
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As a general rule, according to the Society for Human Resources Management, insubordination requires three things:
- The employer gives the order.
- The employee acknowledges the order.
- The employee refuses to carry out the order.
Insubordination can take the form of actions, words, or attitudes that display a lack of respect or compliance, potentially leading to disciplinary action, other consequences, or even termination. A tolerance level for disobedience will depend on the severity of the situation and whether the employee repeats the behavior. A one-time quiet refusal to do something will probably be accepted, while repeated loud refusals will result in punishment.
The workplace, however, generally isn’t set up where managers expect perfect adherence to management direction. Often, professional-level employees are given a lot of leeway in how they approach their job. Good managers recognize that their direct reports are the experts in their jobs and rely on the employee to push back.
The difference between insubordination and pushback generally occurs in how the employee approaches the situation. If an employee ignores the manager’s instructions and does something else, that’s insubordination. However, if the employee contacts the manager and explains why the manager’s guidelines are a bad idea, a discussion ensues, and they ultimately agree, that’s pushback.
Sometimes insubordination is protected by law. For instance, there is a legal doctrine called “wrongful termination in violation of public policy in the United States.” An employee can be protected when refusing to carry out an illegal order. While it is insubordination, the courts will side with the employee. Whistleblower protection is also widespread.
The impact of insubordination at work
Employee insubordination impacts workplace morale. When a worker does not complete the assignment given by the manager, other team members will perform the abandoned task, which can cause stress and demotivation. It can escalate to other team members ganging up on the defiant peer or mirror the same insubordinate behavior. Either way, it results in overall conflict in the team, which could reflect poorly on the manager’s leadership skills.
It could also lead to employee turnover when direct reports are unsatisfied with their manager’s inability to address insubordination within the team.
Insubordination could also result in potential financial and legal ramifications. Employees who don’t fulfill their deliverables reduce the company’s productivity.
For example, they could provide unsatisfactory customer service by failing to meet clients’ expectations, leading to profit losses. A customer who has a bad experience with a company is less likely to recommend its products or services, thereby costing you potential customers as well. Worse, the company may face legal consequences because it failed to fulfill the agreed services.
Now that we’ve defined what insubordination means and the impact it has on the organization, let’s discuss the different insubordination examples to help you understand if it appears in your workplace.
Verbal insubordination is using disrespectful or offensive language towards a manager or coworker. It involves expressing disobedience, challenging authority, or undermining the established chain of command through spoken words.
- Direct refusal – A supervisor asks an employee to complete a task, and the employee responds with, “I’m not going to do it.”
- Offensive and/or abusive language – If an employee makes derogatory comments about a supervisor’s ethnicity or gender or uses profanity when expressing their disagreement or dissatisfaction.
- Insulting statements – If an employee responds to a manager’s suggestion with, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Are you even qualified to be in charge?”
- Open defiance – Using statements like, “You have no idea what you’re doing,” or “This company’s policies are a joke, and I refuse to follow them.”
- Sarcasm and mockery – Responding to a supervisor’s request with a sarcastic tone and saying, “Sure, I’ll get right on that. Not like I have anything better to do.”
Disobeying direct orders
Intentionally failing to follow instructions given by a supervisor is considered disobeying direct orders.
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- Failure to complete assigned tasks – If an employee is specifically instructed to prepare a report by a certain deadline but fails to do so without providing any explanation or justification.
- Ignoring safety procedures – If an employee refuses to wear a safety helmet at a construction site despite explicit instructions from their supervisor.
- Violating company policies – Using personal devices during working hours despite a clear policy against it or accessing unauthorized websites on company computers.
- Disregarding chain of command – An employee seeking approval from someone higher in the hierarchy instead of their immediate supervisor, thereby disregarding the proper chain of command.
Undermining authority refers to actions or behaviors that intentionally weaken or challenge the power, credibility, or effectiveness of a manager.
- Spreading rumors or gossip – Spreading rumors about the manager’s personal life, professional competence, or engaging in malicious gossip.
- Publicly discrediting or humiliating – Challenging a supervisor’s decisions or competence in front of others, mocking or ridiculing them, or deliberately trying to make them look foolish or inadequate.
- Ignoring or disregarding instructions – Intentionally delaying or ignoring manager’s requests, refusing to carry out tasks, or deliberately misinterpreting their instructions.
- Undermining communication – Withholding important information, spreading misinformation, or creating barriers that prevent the flow of communication and decision-making.
- Forming cliques or alliances – An insubordinate employee aligning with others who share negative views or opinions about the manager, creating a divisive environment and destroying the manager’s influence.
- Undermining in meetings – Constantly interrupting the manager during meetings, challenging their ideas without valid reasons, or monopolizing the discussion to distract from the agenda or undermine their leadership.
- Withholding support or cooperation – Withholding resources, delaying responses to the manager’s messages, or sabotaging their efforts.
Refusal to perform assigned tasks
This means deliberately declining or rejecting to carry out duties or responsibilities that have been assigned by a supervisor.
- Flat-out refusal – If an employee is asked to prepare a presentation for an upcoming meeting but responds with a clear refusal, like, “I’m not going to do it. It’s not my responsibility.”
- Passive resistance – Consistently prioritizing other less important tasks or intentionally working at a slow pace to avoid completing the assigned task within the required timeframe.
- Avoiding behavior – An employee says “Yes, of course” to their supervisor, but doesn’t complete the task at hand. This is different than when an employee lacks the resources or ability to do the job; it’s when they could do the task but choose not to.
- Redirecting responsibilities – An employee may try to delegate their tasks to colleagues or attempt to transfer the responsibility to someone else without valid justification.
- Expressing disagreement or dissatisfaction – An employee may question the purpose or importance of the task and use that as a basis for refusing to perform it.
Gross insubordination constitutes severe and blatant acts of disobedience that demonstrate a complete disregard for authority. It involves extreme and highly inappropriate behaviors that violate professional norms and can have serious consequences for the individual and the organization.
This type of serious insubordination is considered gross misconduct. The employee may be subject to immediate disciplinary action, including termination of employment.
- Threats of violence – Physical confrontations, verbal threats, or intimidation tactics that create a hostile and unsafe work environment.
- Public insults or defamation – Using derogatory language, spreading false information, or damaging the organization’s or supervisor’s reputation through malicious intent.
- Refusal to follow direct orders in front of others – An employee openly and deliberately refuses to follow direct orders or instructions from a supervisor, particularly in front of other employees, to undermine authority, create dissent among the team, and challenge the legitimacy of the person in charge.
- Sabotaging work or projects – Purposefully providing incorrect information, manipulating data, or deliberately compromising the quality of work to undermine the success of a project.
- Insubordinate behavior during critical situations – During emergencies or important deadlines, an employee intentionally disregard protocols, disobey direct orders, or compromise the situation through deliberate noncompliance.
- Inciting rebellion or organizational disruption – Spreading discontent, encouraging others to defy authority, or organizing acts of collective resistance.
General workplace insubordination is not uncommon. Here are a few cases of insubordinate behavior and actions that have made it to the media and even to the court:
- An employee’s manager instructed her to appear at an in-person meeting to discuss a performance issue. The manager claimed to have told the employee four times, but the employee claimed otherwise. The employee did not show up at the meeting and, instead, went to another site. The manager terminated the employee for insubordination.
- An employee refused a manager’s instruction to make a payment and adjust a budget and then wrote an email stating she would no longer report to this supervisor. The company terminated her for insubordination.
- An employee refused, among other problems, to deliver materials to a production line. The manager terminated her. However, during the time the employee was insubordinate, she was also working on a union organizing campaign. As such, the US National Labor Relations Board said that her termination was unjust and that the insubordination was a pretext and anti-union sentiment was the real reason.
- A police officer complained that her coworkers were working with fevers and were making the workplace unsafe under current Coronavirus workplace safety guidelines. Her management terminated her for insubordination related to nine charges. The officer fought the termination in court.
- Nurses who tell their colleagues that N-95 masks are safer than the hospital standard face masks claim that their management punishes them for insubordination. The Nurses Union claims they could be “fired on the spot” for insubordination if they defied hospital policy and wore their own N-95 Masks.
Causes of insubordination
Insubordinate behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. There are various reasons why employees choose to act that way:
Miscommunication occurs when there are unclear instructions, misunderstanding of expectations, ineffective communication channels, language barriers, misinterpretation of feedback, and irregular communication. It can lead to confusion, frustration, and, ultimately, insubordination.
Lack of respect in the workplace
According to Auburn University, employee insubordination is often a reaction to abusive or non-productive supervisors.
When employees do not feel respected or valued, it can lead to resentment and dissatisfaction. If they perceive that their managers are unappreciative of their work or their feedback is ignored, they may develop a negative attitude towards the authority.
Disagreement with company policies or decisions
When employees strongly disagree with specific policies or decisions, it can lead to a breakdown in compliance and a refusal to follow directives.
When employees have personal values or ethical principles that conflict with certain work policies or procedures that are biased toward a particular group of employees, they may choose to disobey or challenge those policies, leading to insubordinate behavior.
Personal issues and stress outside of work
Stress can push a person to behave in an insubordinate manner. It could be personal, like sickness in the family or financial woes. It can overwhelm individuals to the point that it affects their work. Even though they don’t have problems with their colleagues and managers, they may resort to insubordinate behavior to alleviate their personal stress.
How to address insubordination at work
Fortunately, there are remedies to prevent and resolve insubordination at work before or when it happens in your organization. Here are some steps you can take:
1. Get a good understanding of employee rights
In some situations, employee actions that would normally be considered insubordination are protected by law. For example, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) states that employees have the right to engage in protected concerted activities, such as discussing work conditions or advocating for changes, without fear of retaliation from their employers, even if those actions could be seen as insubordinate in a traditional sense.
Becoming familiar with relevant laws and regulations helps HR professionals better navigate and manage difficult employee relations situations with care, professionalism, and in a compliant way.
It’s also helpful to educate employees about their rights and protection under employment laws.
With this knowledge, they are more likely to engage in constructive communication, seek resolution through appropriate channels, and uphold their responsibilities while addressing concerns respectfully. Moreover, they are less likely to do things that may jeopardize their employment or result in legal consequences.
2. Focus on preventing insubordination
Building strong employee relations is the best way to prevent insubordination.
This could include setting clear boundaries, establishing a culture of respect and teamwork, listening to employees, regularly addressing their concerns and grievances, and effective conflict management and de-escalating conflicts.
Anjela Mangrum from a manufacturing recruiting agency and executive search firm Mangrum Career Solutions says HR needs to clearly define in writing the types of behavior that might lead to disciplinary action. It’s also essential to specify the kind of action that employees should expect after various incidents of insubordination.
“This can not only ensure fair handling of employee misconduct issues but can also prevent insubordination in general. Specifying acts of misconduct, from eye-rolling to downright disrespect, can encourage employees to be more compliant,” notes Mangrum.
According to Jonathan Westover, OD/HR/Leadership consultant from Human Capital Innovations, creating a positive work environment is key to preventing insubordination.
“Employees are more likely to be respectful and cooperative when they feel valued and respected by their managers and colleagues. Creating a positive work environment can help to prevent insubordination by fostering a sense of trust and belonging,” says Westover.
3. Educate managers on preventing and addressing insubordination
HR should provide training to managers and supervisors on how to prevent and address insubordination in the workplace.
During the training, HR should educate managers on how to develop clear communication between employees to avoid misunderstandings, how they can treat employees fairly, and how they should avoid responding with anger and hostility.
They should also be trained on the processes they need to follow when insubordination happens.
4. Don’t ignore insubordination incidents
Ignoring insubordination results in more insubordination. Even if it’s mild, letting it go sets an example that the supervisor’s instructions are just suggestions, not rules. This does not mean that the managers need to micro-manage, but when they’ve given explicit instructions and an employee doesn’t follow them, point it out.
Especially if this is gross insubordination or repeated behavior, managers must report it so that necessary action can be taken.
5. Follow all laws and ethical standards
Addressing insubordination requires organizations to not only enforce compliance with laws and regulations. They must also adhere to ethical standards and create a framework that promotes a respectful and transparent work environment while effectively addressing instances of insubordination.
Businesses must establish clear policies and guidelines and apply them fairly and consistently. Most importantly, managers should demonstrate ethical behavior to foster a culture of respect that inspire employees to also do the same and discourage insubordinate behavior.
In our real-life insubordination examples above, the employees felt that their employers were not following proper safety guidelines. Of course, the employers say there was much more going on than the employee objecting to the safety guidelines. If the employer had focused on following the health department guidelines, the employee wouldn’t feel the need to rebel.
You’re also much less likely to lose your case in court or before a labor board if you’re careful to follow the law.
6. Conduct investigations
Handling employee insubordination in a fair and transparent way also involves conducting an investigation.
A thorough investigation allows organizations to collect facts and evaluate the situation objectively to take appropriate actions. To ensure a fair and impartial analysis of the situation, all parties involved should be given the opportunity to present their side of the story. When done successfully, organizations can effectively address the issue at hand, promote accountability, and help prevent future instances of insubordination.
HR professional and leadership coach Elena Sarango-Muniz proposes several steps to follow when investigating insubordination:
- Confirm it was indeed insubordination. Getting both sides of the story and potential witnesses’ statements are key to guaranteeing objectivity.
- Speak with each individual separately and ask prepared, structured questions for fairness and consistency, avoid assumptions or using emotions
when asking the questions and documenting the conversation.
- Determine if it is still considered insubordination and if yes,
- Depending on the circumstances, such as age/race/past history, you might need to consult legal counsel. This is to minimize the risk of any type of discrimination claim.
7. Document the incidents
While managers often don’t record small infractions and wait until they have serious rebellion before taking action, this sets you up for failure.
Serious cases of workplace insubordination can lead to termination. Every termination needs a paperwork trail – which will also protect you in court. Document the behavior, ask witnesses for statements, and keep everything in the proper file. Managers must consult HR for guidance.
8. Take disciplinary action
Depending on the severity of the insubordination incident and whether or not it happened before, you should apply your company’s disciplinary action policy.
Organizations typically work with progressive discipline, which is a series of escalating disciplinary actions to address employee misconduct. Progressive discipline steps to manage insubordination can include:
- Coaching and informal problem-solving dialogue
- Verbal warning
- Written warning
To ensure the effective implementation of your disciplinary action policy, respectful and professional communication is always essential.
I believe in taking an informal approach when a worker shows initial signs of insubordination by having a friendly chat with them about their behavior. Once the root cause of their behavior is established, it’s easier to figure out the next steps.
In most cases I’ve dealt with, employees have apologized and corrected their attitude after a warning, but some had to eventually be disciplined or dismissed after seeking legal counsel. Anjela Mangrum, Mangrum Career Solutions
Sample write up for insubordination
What could a written warning in the form of an employee write up look like? Have a look at the sample write up for insubordination:
Subject: Insubordination Warning
Dear [Employee Name],
We are writing this letter to address a serious matter regarding your recent conduct, which we consider insubordination.
It has come to our attention that on [Date], during a team meeting, you openly defied a direct instruction given by your supervisor, [Supervisor Name]. Such insubordinate behavior undermines the authority of your supervisor and goes against our company’s policies and expectations.
As an employee of [Company Name], it is crucial that you understand the importance of following instructions and demonstrating respect towards your superiors. Open and respectful communication channels are vital for a harmonious and productive work environment.
The specific incident that led to this insubordination warning is as follows: During the team meeting held on [Date], your supervisor provided clear instructions to the entire team regarding the completion of a critical project. Despite the explicit direction given by your supervisor, you openly challenged it and refused to comply with the assigned tasks. This behavior not only disregards the authority of your supervisor but also disrupts the smooth functioning of the team.
This insubordination warning serves as a formal notice regarding your conduct. We expect an immediate improvement in your behavior and a commitment to rectify the situation. Continued insubordination or any further violations of company policies will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of your employment.
We strongly urge you to reflect on this warning and take the necessary steps to rectify your behavior. If you have any concerns or require clarification, we encourage you to schedule a meeting with your supervisor or reach out to the HR department.
We believe in your potential as an employee, and we hope that this warning will serve as a turning point toward positive growth and improved professional conduct.
[HR Department Representative Name]
On a final note
Insubordination in the workplace is an unfortunate reality that organizations may encounter. While it cannot be completely eliminated, there are proactive measures that can help prevent insubordinate behavior to a great extent.
Establishing clear boundaries and fostering open communication channels are critical in avoiding insubordination. However, if it still occurs, it is essential to take appropriate action, which involves identifying the specific behavior, imposing relevant measures, maintaining documentation, conducting an investigation, and ensuring fairness throughout the process.
Insubordination includes using disrespectful language towards the manager, disobeying or refusing to do the supervisor’s direct orders, humiliatingly challenging the manager’s authority in public, sabotaging work or projects, and inciting rebellion or violence.
Insubordination applies only in a vertical direction, like a junior employee defying the instructions of a senior employee. Meanwhile, disrespect can happen vertically or laterally. For example, an employee gossips about a manager’s personal life or uses inappropriate, offensive language when talking to fellow team members.
In general, disrespect doesn’t have to be associated with offending a person in a position of authority. Disrespect happens when an employee does anything discourteous towards their co-worker, regardless of rank or position.
A direct report arguing with his manager is not considered insubordination if done respectfully and professionally. For instance, an employee may voice their opinion differently from their manager to provide a unique perspective to a work situation or give constructive feedback.
However, it is considered insubordination when the employee confronts the manager aggressively, deliberately defying of the manager’s order.
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