What is Insubordination?

Insubordination in the workplace can be defined by defiance to a manager by an employee. This type of behavior is not only disruptive to employee productivity and will likely result in a decline in employee morale. Given the consequences that result from insubordination, it is imperative to address any signs of insubordination at the earliest stage possible. Insubordination is not a concept that is confined solely to the more junior staff of an organization. Insubordination can occur at even the more senior levels. As such, an employer must consistently apply any workplace policies that dictate employees must perform certain assigned tasks.

Insubordination has been defined by the Supreme Court of California as an employee’s refusal to follow an order from a superior for which the superior is allowed to give and allowed to expect that the order be obeyed. The California Employment Development Department has expanded upon that definition since the Supreme Court heard its case. The definition includes the following:

  1. Employee disregarding an instruction or order from the employer
  2. Ridiculing or disputing a superior
  3. Evidence of exceeding one’s authority
  4. Use of profanity against a supervisor

The Employment Development Department has a very informative website that provides examples of behavior that would rise to the level of misconduct under each of these categories. If an employee has signed a contract or the employer has a policy that does not indicate that the employee must obey the reasonable instruction and the employee does not obey, this behavior may not be shown to constitute insubordination. Given this fact, it is extremely important for an employer to review any contractual definitions or policy definitions to determine if an employee has, in fact, been insubordinate. Lastly, if an employee has taken an action that can be justifiable as it was taken in defense of their rights on the contract, this action may not be considered insubordination.

If a dispute arises over whether behavior rises to the level of insubordination, employees can challenge the disciplinary punishment levied against them by demonstrating that the actions taken were justified, in refusing to perform, as they had a reasonable belief that by following their employer’s orders they would have been in violation of the law or would have put the safety and health of others at risk. Lastly, insolence and insubordination are not synonyms in the workplace. While both of the terms may result in an employee’s termination, insolence focuses on an employee’s disrespectful or rude behavior compared with insubordination, which is an employee’s performance refusal.

Handling Employee Insubordination: Signs of Insubordination

As it relates to deadlines, one sign of insubordination would be if an employee out of disrespect for his supervisor decides to miss deadlines on projects. The employee may attempt of set forth several excuses or may not bother to offer any explanation for the missed deadline. The employee may even attempt to place blame on his/her other office mates for the missed deadline. In all likelihood, the employee will not take responsibility for his/her actions despite being well aware of the consequences.

What should a manager do if he/she has an insubordinate employee in his/her reporting line? If the manager begins to notice that an employee is not following his/her instructions or the employee has become brazen enough to openly challenge and refuse to comply with the manager’s requests, the manager must address the insubordinate behavior immediately given the chance of such behavior spreading as well as its potential to negatively impact other employee morale and productivity.

Furthermore, a manager must be attuned to any signs of disrespect on the part of the insubordinate employee and those signs are generally immediately obvious. For example, an insubordinate employees may openly address the manager offensive names to his/her face or behind his/her back relaying such comments to the rest of the manager’s team. In addition, the employee will be disruptive in meetings that are organized and chaired by his/her manager and may also spread rumors about the manager around the office.

As a final sign of insubordination, an employee may demonstrate his/her insubordination through a change in attendance at work. The employee may begin taking days off with no notice to his/her manager or will begin arriving late or leaving early on a regular basis. The insubordinate employee will have little regards from the company attendance polices or the manager’s own internal team policy. This insubordinate behavior will make it difficult to have an effective team work schedule.

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