Updated August 12, 2020: 

Insubordination in the Workplace

Employers can handle insubordination in the workplace in various ways, but the most direct way is to fire that employee. However, you must understand insubordination is something that occurs regardless of ethics or camaraderie among employees. Before responding to an insubordinate employee, make sure they know about the company's policy regarding compliance. Also, confirm employees in the Human Resources Department are well-versed in specific instances of employee disruptions.

Definition of Insubordination

Insubordination refers to an employee who is outright disobedient or disrespectful to a manager or owner of a business. Examples of insubordination include:

  • Refusal to obey commands of a supervisor
  • Disrespect shown to higher-ups in the form of vulgar or mocking language
  • Directly questioning or mocking management decisions

Additionally, disobedience can mean gestures such as non-verbal cues showing dissatisfaction or eye-rolling.

When to Detect Insubordination

You can spot the signs of insubordination when:

  • A directive was issued, but it was never followed through, intentionally.
  • The employee understood instructions that were given but refused to comply.
  • Non-performance or outright refusing to conduct a task.

Not all factors may be present when it comes to spotting disobedience, but it is best to use good judgment based on each situation.

What Is Not Insubordination

As an employer, you’ll more than likely come across specific instances of workplace conflicts or misunderstandings:

  • If the employee misunderstood any instructions and did not complete a task as a result.
  • An employee may question any ethics or legalities of a particular directive coming from a manager and did not follow through with the command. An employee should express such concerns to another higher-up.
  • If an employee engages in a private conversation conveying why a direct order was not satisfied.

Example of Insubordination

An employee that engages in unwarranted abusive communications falls under insubordination. However, it may be appropriate if an aggressive stance was first taken by a supervisor or occurred in a private conversation. Direct cursing or aggressive physical gestures should be grounds for immediate termination. Include specific examples of insubordination in any employee handbooks or manuals you may have so staff members know what lines not to cross. Before firing someone, take some time to cool off, and avoid terminating someone on the spot if possible.

Note: Be aware that immediate termination may not be the best solution. With that, ensure any response is handed out immediately and not delayed.

Response to Disobedience

You have a variety of options at your disposal in the form of termination or some form of disciplinary action. In addition, know what specific disciplinary measures to take if any insubordinate behavior happens in the workplace. For example, you could send an employee home for the day and give him or her a warning not to display such behavior again. You could also suspend the individual or provide/recommend counseling if he or she is going through personal problems or substance abuse issues. The type of measures taken depends entirely upon yourself and the managers. One key rule to note is assessing the impact of the insubordination and making a determination from there. Moreover, allow managers or officers to address insubordination when necessary.

Case-By-Case Basis

A blanket policy should be in place in regards to insubordination, but there are instances where individual scenarios apply. For instance, you can choose a necessary course of action based on an employee behavior pattern and history. Verbal or written warnings for first-time infractions are appropriate in many cases, especially if it is a minor one. However, a light response to major instances of disobedience sends a bad message to staff members in the workplace, but a harsh response to minor instances could foster disharmony among staff members.

Further Action Taken

You should always be prepared for a response when you need to terminate someone. For instance, a former employee may challenge your decision legally, or the employee may wish to claim unemployment benefits. If such instances occur, you must show a direct disregard of a specific command and that the employee understood directives but chose not to comply. It is important to apply the rules consistently and not show favorites to avoid decreased morale and dissatisfaction among your staff members.

Communication Is Key

The best way to communicate an order is a clearly written memo or document that explains who should do what, when it should be done, where they should do it, and how they should do it. With that, agreements and handbooks will not prevent insubordination in your workplace.

The best form of communication is a memo describing specific behaviors that will not be tolerated and the appropriate responses. When issuing orders, ensure that the employee understands the directions given, and ask if they have any questions. An employee’s acceptance of a task is also verbal communication that he or she understands the commands and will obey them. Also, self-assess any order you give, including your fellow managers or company owners.

Policy Types

You may have broad or narrow insubordination policies. Broader rules can cover a wide array of issues in the workplace. However, policies can be specific and directly apply to certain scenarios.

Managerial Cohesion

Insubordination can take many forms, including among managerial staff. The same policies should apply to managers, and avoid playing favorites between management and subordinates. Further, address any disharmony or miscommunication between manager and subordinates. Perhaps a manager may be trying to oust an employee in pursuit of a position takeover, or a manager issued unreasonable or impossible tasks to complete. In such cases, it is important to hear both sides and use your best judgment to render a proper solution. In addition, listen to your managers regarding any employee that shows signs of insubordination.

Understanding a Situation

Insubordination could also be the result of workplace inefficiency. For instance, perhaps an employee is taking on the duties of three employees and cannot handle additional work. Stress can also be a factor. Before firing someone, take the time to understand any circumstances or factors that may have caused an employee to act out. Also, employees could be faring through tough workplace conditions, in which case, you should evaluate how your workers are being treated and the conditions they are working in. Harsh work conditions could cause tension within your workforce.

Notes: Listen to the input of your most valued employees to learn of any conflicts or problems. Ask valued employees of anyone fostering discontent in the workplace, and pinpoint the source of dysfunction by terminating that person or issuing a stern warning.

Bad Employees

An employee may not show outright disrespect or insubordination. For instance, perhaps an employee is talking badly about yourself or another manager to other employees. An employee that gossips about others or spreads false information is another cause for concern. If such instances happen, render a swift response accordingly based on your own judgment.

Solid Grounds for Termination

In other cases, termination is clear-cut:

  • Employees may lose the respect of managers or company owners and could dismiss commands or miss deadlines intentionally.
  • Insubordinates may issue multiple excuses and will not apologize for any missed deadlines or uncompleted tasks.
  • An employee may attempt to assign blame to other members for missed or incomplete work.
  • A person will not take responsibility for actions.
  • An employee may be consistently late or blatantly disregard work schedules, affecting workplace efficiency.

Such instances can be noticed in a series of patterns over time, and you can issue warnings to an individual to correct their behavior. If they do not correct themselves after ample warning, termination is the correct option.

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