Insubordination at Work – What is it and How to Deal with it

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Television police dramas always involve a rogue detective who pushes the limits, goes against the Captain’s advice and gets yelled at for insubordination – and then captures the bad guy. Naturally, all is forgiven.

In the business world, insubordination doesn’t often lead to forgiveness and praise – it’s generally a step toward termination. Rebellion against a manager can result in a weakened department, lack of trust, and general bad morale among employees. If one employee consistently rebels against a manager’s instructions, other employees will be confused about what they need to do.

As such, you must understand insubordination and how to deal with it in the workforce.

Contents
What is insubordination? A definition
What is considered insubordination in the workplace?
Insubordination examples
Insubordinate behavior
Insubordination interventions
How to handle insubordination after it happens
On a final note

FAQ

What is insubordination? A definition

The straightforward dictionary definition is “Defiance of authority; refusal to obey orders.” 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 manager instruction 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.

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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.

What is considered insubordination in the workplace?

The primary workplace insubordination case is straightforward: Manager says do A. The employee says no. That’s insubordination. That happens all the time – sometimes through utter rebellion and sometimes through forgetfulness, unrealistic manager expectations, and sometimes through pure laziness. If a manager says, “Do these 47 tasks today”, and the employee only does 35 of them, no one considers that insubordination.

As a general rule, according to the Society for Human Resources Management, insubordination requires three things:

  1. The employer gives the order.
  2. The employee acknowledges the order.
  3. The employee refuses to carry out the order.

But in practical application, when a manager reprimands someone for insubordination, it’s generally an egregious situation. For example, an employee who yells his refusal to carry out instructions in front of a customer is far more likely to be written up or otherwise disciplined for insubordination than one who quietly does what he wants.

In other words, polite insubordination is more acceptable than rude defiance. A manager’s 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.

What is Employee Insubordination

Insubordination Examples

While most insubordination cases are quietly handled within the workplace, there are some cases where rebellion against a boss makes headlines.

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President Trump is famously outspoken about staff problems. When Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was removed from his position as a US National Security Council Member, Trump tweeted:

“Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about ‘Lt. Col.’ Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was. Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!) but, he was very insubordinate.”

Lt. Col. Vindman’s attorney refutes the allegation that he was insubordinate. 

US politicians aren’t the only ones who deal with insubordination. German Chancellor Angela Merkel dealt with a rebellious staff member, French President Emmanuel Macron declared he wouldn’t tolerate insubordination and battled with a General. And former British Prime Minister Theresa May was accused of weakness due to the independence shown by her ministers – in other words, they were insubordinate.

But, general workplace insubordination is much more common, but they are often fraught with claims on both sides. Here are a few cases of insubordination.

  1. An employee’s manager instructed her to appear at an in-person meeting to discuss a performance issue. The manager claimed to have to told the employee four times, but the employee claims otherwise. The employee did not show up at the meeting and, instead, went to another site. The manager terminated the employee for insubordination.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 is fighting the termination in court.
  5. 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.

Of course, most cases of an insubordinate employee don’t reach the newspapers or the courts or labor boards. Most are more straightforward cases of employee rebellion. Refusing direct lawful orders, violating company policy, and bad behavior in front of customers often make up insubordination cases.

Not every case of legitimate insubordination results in termination. Many companies use a progressive discipline model that requires instances of multiple rebellion before the company terminates the employee – as long as the case isn’t egregious.

Insubordinate Behavior

Technically, any variation from manager instructions is insubordination, but there needs to be a wilful component to it. Mistakes happen, and you should deal with those as common errors. Egregious insubordinate behavior has three parts:

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  1. Rude behaviour.
  2. Aggressive behaviour.
  3. Threatening behaviour.

These insubordinate behaviors demand an immediate and swift response. However, some forms of insubordination can be equally egregious without being so noticeable. For instance, if an employee quietly goes behind your back, that behavior is insubordinate, and you need to deal with it.

Other examples of insubordinate behavior can include.

  1. Subtle sabotage. Instead of loudly objecting, an employee refuses to do the assigned task and works behind the scenes to cause the project to fail.
  2. Avoiding behavior. An employee says “Yes, of course” to your face, but doesn’t complete the task at hand. This is different than when an employee lacks the resources or ability to do the job. This is when an employee could do something but chooses not to.
  3. Doing the exact opposite of your instructions. This type of insubordination is often the most obvious, but if done quietly, many managers ignore it.
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Insubordinate behavior can vary from subtle to (very) noticable.

Insubordination Interventions

Naturally, employees want to keep their jobs, and managers want employees that carry out instructions. Sometimes there are legitimate clashes of ideas and personalities which can make this difficult, but here are some things managers can do.

First, prevention.

  1. Set clear boundaries. If you let employees know your limits at the beginning, they know what they need to do, and conflict doesn’t arise as often.
  2. Listen to your employees. In many cases, insubordination results from a genuine disagreement over what the right action is. If you have an open relationship with your employees and listen when they say, “I don’t think we should do this,” you’ll have an opportunity to find a solution before insubordination occurs. Additionally, if you insist that your instructions are the right one, you’ll have a chance to explain the reasoning behind your order.
  3. Follow all laws and ethical standards. In the last two 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.

How to handle insubordination after it happens

No matter how good a manager you are, and how carefully you adhere to guidelines and rules, you will still experience insubordination from time to time. Here’s how to deal with an insubordinate employee.

  1. Identify the behavior immediately. Ignoring insubordination results in more insubordination. Even if it’s mild, letting it go sets an example that your instructions are just suggestions, not rules. This does not mean you need to be a micro-managing control freak. You don’t have to give instructions for everything, and you don’t need to control every aspect of your employees’ days (and you should not try to control their days). When you’ve given explicit instructions, and an employee doesn’t follow it, point it out.
  2. Issue consequences. Naturally, this varies in the circumstances. It may be insubordination when an employee locks the door at 17:05 instead of 17:00, but it’s not terribly important. A quick reminder, “We need to lock up right at 17:00.” If the behavior continues, then issue a formal warning and follow your company’s disciplinary guidelines. If the behavior is egregious, immediate punishment is in order. For example, if an employee lies to a customer and tells them the opposite of what you said, a quick write up or suspension will be necessary.
  3. Document. While managers often don’t record small infractions and wait until they have serious rebellion before taking action, this sets you up for failure. Every termination needs a paperwork trail – and this will protect you in court as well. Document the behavior, ask witnesses for statements, and keep everything in the proper file. Consult your HR manager for guidance in all of this.
  4. Be fair. Managers are human and naturally prefer some employees over other employees. But, when it comes to insubordination, there needs to be a single standard. Before you discipline one of your less favored employees, flip it to test it. Would you consider this insubordination if your favored employee did it? This is essential to keep employee morale high and build employee confidence. A fair manager is a good one.

When dealing with insubordination, keep in mind that this is common around the globe, but that doesn’t make it okay. Make sure you’re not micromanaging or mistreating employees. Setting boundaries, following up promptly, and correcting problems at the moment, can reduce your incidences of egregious lousy behavior.

On a final note

Insubordination in the workplace is something that is, unfortunately, unavoidable. There are, however, things you can do to prevent insubordinate behavior as much as possible. Setting clear boundaries and listening to your employees when they disagree with you on something are excellent steps in the right direction. If it’s too late for prevention, adequate action is required; identify the behavior, issue consequences, document, and – perhaps most importantly – be fair.

FAQ

What does insubordinate mean in the workplace?

As a general rule, insubordination requires three things 1) the employer gives the order 2) the employee acknowledges the order 3) the employee refuses to carry out the order.

How to deal with an insubordinate employee?

In terms of prevention, you can set clear boundaries, listen to your employees if they don’t agree with something, and follow all laws and ethical standards. If subordination does occur you can best: identify the behavior immediately, issue consequences, document, and be fair.

What is insubordinate conduct?

Insubordinate conduct can, for instance, be subtle sabotage, avoiding behavior, or doing the exact opposite of the manager’s instructions.

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