What Is Insubordination and Ways to Handle It in the Workplace

March 20, 2022
What Is Insubordination and Ways to Handle It in the Workplace

In a healthy workplace, employees generally respect the code of conduct. However, disruptive employee behavior is a fact of life, and when it strikes, it may take the form of insubordination. Read on to learn about insubordination in the workplace – including examples of this behavior, the difference between insubordination and insolence, and how to deal with insubordination.

What “insubordination” means

Insubordination in the workplace is when an employee refuses to carry out their employer’s legal and reasonable order. “Employer” refers to anyone who has the authority to give the order. Typically, this is the employee’s manager or supervisor. Authority figures may also include the business’ owner(s). For insubordination to happen, the following 3 elements must be present:

  • The employer gives the employee a legal and reasonable order.
  • The employee accepts the order.
  • The employee intentionally refuses to perform the order.

The order can be verbal or written. It can even take the form of duties stated in the job description. The employee’s acceptance can be verbal or nonverbal (e.g., nodding their head in agreement). The employee’s refusal can be verbal or nonverbal.

Examples of insubordination

The following scenarios are common examples of insubordination; the employee:

  • Refuses to show up for work
  • Will not complete assigned work by the deadline
  • Refuses to clock in or out
  • Leaves work early without permission
  • Repeatedly takes unauthorized breaks
  • Sabotages team efforts or business activities
  • Refuses to adhere to company rules

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), insubordination can occur as a single incident that warrants discipline or termination. It can also manifest as a series of smaller events that gradually erode the manager’s authority.

What is not insubordination

It is not considered insubordination if the employee refuses to carry out the order because it is:

  • Outside of their required scope of duties
  • Illegal or unethical
  • Issued by an unauthorized individual

Additionally, it is not insubordination if the employee misunderstood the order and consequently did not execute it.

Insubordination vs. insolence

These two are often confused as being one and the same, but they are different – though they can overlap. As stated, insubordination is when an employee purposely fails to carry out a legal and reasonable order after accepting it. Insolence, however, is when an employee – whether verbally or nonverbally, engages in:

  • Rude
  • Derisive
  • Disrespectful language
  • Inappropriate or abusive behavior.

An employee does not have to be insolent for insubordination to exist. For example, insubordination is present when they quietly and deliberately refuse to do the work assigned to them. But it is possible for an employee to be both insolent and insubordinate at the same time. For example, they hurl insults at their manager while refusing to execute the legal and reasonable order.

How to handle insubordination

If you wrongfully discipline or terminate an employee for insubordination, you can expect a lawsuit. Therefore, it’s imperative that you follow best practices when dealing with potential insubordination. Below are some recommendations.

Understand the meaning of insubordination

This will enable you to be more likely to detect it. Due to the many gray areas surrounding insubordination, be sure you consult with your legal team before accusing an employee of insubordination.

Develop written policies

Establishing written policies regarding insubordination in your workplace provides a clear explanation of what is not acceptable behavior. Ideally, these policies should define what constitutes insubordinate behaviors and the disciplinary measures that will be taken toward employees who violate the policies. Make sure you include your stance on workplace violence and insolent behaviors in these policies.

Incorporate the policies into your employee handbook

Your employee handbook should be given to all new hires and existing employees. To increase the odds of employees actually reading the policies, you can also distribute an internal memo outlining the types of behaviors that will not be tolerated in your company and the associated disciplinary measures.

Try to uncover the root cause of the employee’s negative behavior

For example, if an employee refuses to do a project assigned to them, find out why. The reason may actually uncover cracks in your own job assignment process. But if the employee is just being willfully disobedient, some type of disciplinary action is likely needed.

Emphasize the importance of factually documenting the events surrounding insubordinations

Create an internal form that management can use to record these types of incidents. Have them submit the form to your HR department, who will then investigate the matter.

Provide management with comprehensive training

Proactively training managers help them manage problematic behavior in the workplace.

Examine your company culture

Determine whether your company culture is encouraging insubordinate conduct. For example, analyze the type of language used in your company, plus interactions between managers and employees and employees and their peers. Based on the results, you may need to change your company norms.

Keep Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in mind

Under this provision, employees have the right to join together and engage in “concerted activities” to improve their working conditions, including their pay and benefits. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the NLRA. Prior to July 21, 2020, the NLRA had specific protections for employees who exhibited abusive conduct or comments while exercising their Section 7 NLRA rights. However, on July 21, 2020, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) basically ended those protections. The Employment Law Watch website states the NLRB has ended its “long-time standard which protected obscene, racist and sexually harassing speech in connection with Section 7 activity.” The NLRB’s decision makes it easier for employers to discipline or terminate an employee for abusive language or conduct. However, the Board’s decision contains nuances, so be sure to seek legal advice before disciplining or terminating NLRA-protected employees.

Work closely with your legal team

You've hired a legal team for a reason. Taking advantage of their expertise in this area is essential to minimizing the risk of lawsuits from employees who feel they were wrongfully disciplined or terminated for insubordination. Your legal team can help you do the following:

  • Create legally-sound policies on insubordination, insolence, and workplace violence.
  • Verify whether an employee is guilty of insubordination based on their actions and the circumstances at hand.
  • Guide management on how to document events related to insubordination.
  • Apply the appropriate type of disciplinary actions for insubordinate behaviors.

Legal counsel can also help you determine whether an insubordinate employee deserves a second chance. This is a tough decision that requires substantial consideration, so it’s best not to tackle it alone.


No workplace is immune from insubordinate employees. That said, you can take certain steps to manage it and minimize the odds of it happening in your workplace. These steps include having a firm understanding of what constitutes insubordination, creating strong policies for addressing insubordination, and applying the rules consistently and fairly across the organization.  

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