Insubordination in the workplace is when an employee deliberately refuses to obey lawful and reasonable orders from their employer. Typically, these orders come from the employee’s supervisor or manager.

Insubordination consists of three components:

  1. The employer gives the employee a legal and reasonable order.
  2. The employee acknowledges receipt of the order.
  3. The employee intentionally refuses to follow the order.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the order can take the form of verbal or written instructions or duties in the job description. In addition, the order can be an “implied set of duties where no formal job description exists.”

The employee’s acknowledgment of the order can be verbal, such as an explicit statement saying they got the order, or nonverbal, such as a nod of the head. Accepting a job offer may be a form of acknowledgment as well.

An employee is guilty of insubordination when he or she willfully:

  • Refuses to perform a job duty as ordered.
  • Does not show up for work.
  • Takes time off from work without permission.
  • Fails to clock in and out as directed.
  • Leaves work early without permission.

The following does NOT constitute insubordination:

  • The employee misunderstands the order and consequently does not perform the task.
  • The employee refuses to carry out the order because it is illegal, unsafe, illogical or unethical.
  • The employee does not obey the order because it is issued by an unauthorized person.

Insubordination vs. insolence

Insubordination and insolence are forms of employee misconduct. Although the words are sometimes used interchangeably, there are differences between them.

As stated, insubordination is when an employee willfully refuses to obey a sound order from their employer. However, insolence is when an employee uses disrespectful, derisive or abusive language toward their employer. That said, insubordination and insolence can go hand in hand — such as when an employee uses insolent language when disobeying a lawful and reasonable order.

Insubordination and insolence typically lead to disciplinary action and may warrant termination. However, under the National Labor Relations Act, it may be illegal to discipline or fire an employee for exhibiting insolent conduct while they are participating in a protected concerted activity.

Moreover, when determining whether an employee used abusive language, employers should examine what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable language in the workplace.

Before disciplining an employee for insubordination, ask yourself:

  • Was the order appropriate? In other words, was it legal, safe, logical and ethical?
  • How clear were the instructions?
  • Did the employee acknowledge the order?
  • Did the employee intend to disobey the order?
  • Did other workplace factors contribute to the employee’s behavior? For example, did a supervisor or a co-worker provoke the employee’s conduct?
  • How did the employee’s behavior impact the workplace? For example, did it trigger safety hazards or cause workflow disruptions?
  • Do you have strong policies on insubordination? How well are the policies communicated to employees?

If you’re not sure whether an employee’s conduct amounts to insubordination, be sure to seek legal advice before initiating disciplinary action.