What Does Insubordination Mean?

In the workplace, insubordination is what happens when a supervisor gives a direct order and an employee doesn't obey it. In legal terms, insubordination may also mean the intentional disobedience when a supervisor makes a reasonable, lawful request. The term might also refer to harassment or disrespectful behavior toward a superior.

While the word insubordination is often related to the military, where personnel put extreme importance on giving and taking orders, it also applies to the civilian workforce.

Besides refusing to perform work duties, insubordination may also include:

  • Inappropriate comments and language
  • Non-performance
  • Confrontation
  • Non-verbal expressions, such as disrespectful gestures like eye-rolling

Employers need to make clear what's considered workplace insubordination because this type of behavior is grounds for terminating employment. Before an employer takes action against problem employees, the employee should be fully aware of company policies about insubordination. Alternately, Human Resource officers should spell out what constitutes insubordination during orientation for employees or in the company's employee handbook.

Without clear policies on what constitutes insubordination, employees may be confused about what it entails; this lack of clarity could also give the upper hand to an insubordinate employee.

Sometimes, outright termination may not be the most appropriate action, and there should be a procedure for disciplinary action before termination becomes necessary. However, the steps a company takes will depend on how serious the insubordination actions are. Consequences may include:

  • Verbal and written warnings
  • Suspension
  • Immediate termination

While employers or supervisors shouldn't be hasty in these types of situations, it's important not to delay taking disciplinary action because other employees may then think that disobedient and disrespectful behavior will be tolerated.

General Elements of Insubordinate Behavior

In general, there are usually three elements of insubordination, including:

  1. An employee received a direct request.
  2. The employee heard and clearly understood instructions given.
  3. The employee didn't obey this direct order by either explicitly refusing or not performing the work (non-performance).

Not all elements have to be present for insubordination to exist, and in some cases, there's clearly insubordinate behavior, but not enough for grounds for termination.

Examples of Insubordination

These are just some examples of what insubordination may look like:

  • Refusal: An employee receives and fully understands an order and then refuses to obey it. The order isn't illegal and doesn't go against the employee's ethics or compromise his safety. If any of those issues existed, however, the employee could discuss the concerns with their supervisor or refuse to do the task.
  • Disrespect: A confrontation takes place in the workplace between an employee and supervisor. This disagreement doesn't take place in private, and afterwards, the employee refuses to settle the disagreement or boasts about it to workplace peers. This is viewed as disrespectful.
  • Inappropriateness: An employee either directs abusive or inappropriate language to a superior or uses this type of language in reference to the superior. The superior didn't provoke the language, and it's not used during a heated exchange. The employee freely uses it in non-private settings. When the situation calms down, if the employee continues to use this type of language, he may be terminated.
  • Intimidation: Harassing or intimidating behaviors are types of insubordination. Immediate termination may result if the behavior is serious enough.
  • Insolent behavior: Types of insolent acts that fall under insubordination include circumstances in which:
    • A supervisor and employee can no longer maintain a working relationship
    • The credibility and ability of a supervisor to properly perform her role has been negatively impacted
    • An employer loses his reputable standing, finances, or business interests due to an employee's actions

Insubordination: Defiant and Disrespectful

Different states may have slightly different rules and guidelines concerning insubordination. However, it's well-established that employees have a duty to adhere to all reasonable directions and orders of their employers. This includes employees with supervisory or executory powers. If an employee feels the directive is given in bad faith, she might still be obligated to perform the task. Later, she can then take part in a grievance process to address the issue.

In New York, the courts define insubordination as the failure of an employee to obey a reasonable request given by an employer. One example covers what happened when the courts ruled that a doctor was properly terminated due to his poor attitude, unprofessional conduct, and insubordination when he didn't show up to his clinics. Courts ruled in favor of the hospital which had presented a series of serious, documented, good-faith complaints about the doctor's behavior.

Insubordination is defined by the California Supreme Court as the refusal to obey or carry out an order that a superior "is entitled to give and entitled to have obeyed."

Some states require more than one instance of insubordination or disobedience to be reported. Mississippi is one example. The Supreme Court in that state defines insubordination as a continuing or constant intentional refusal to obey an order, whether direct or implied. The order has to be reasonable and also given by and with the proper authority.

If an employee's actions are justifiable in refusing to perform a task, this isn't generally considered to be insubordination.

Employers can avoid legal battles by making a clear, company-wide policy that defines insubordination as well as sub-par work performance. One of the best ways to make this clear is to maintain up-to-date, complete documentation relating to personnel decisions and how they affect all employees in the organization.

It's important for companies to apply the same, consistent workplace policies relating to insubordination because it can occur at any level. If employees are required to perform assigned duties, then directors or managers should also be required to do theirs.

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