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Managers and supervisors have to deal with a growing problem in the workplace: insubordination. 

It is never the employees’ goal to become insubordinate. In the first place, they want to keep their jobs. Who would like to get terminated due to insubordination, right? While on the other hand, managers and supervisors want their subordinates to carry out directives as they say so. 

But there are inevitable instances that the employees’ beliefs, values, and ideas do not match their superiors and the management, thus the clash of personalities in the workplace. When this happens, the relationship between the employees and the supervisors will be significantly affected. 

In reality, there are no supervisors, managers, and even business owners that would want to deal with insubordination. Handling such incidents will undoubtedly test their leadership skills and patience. Other than that is very time-consuming, stressful, and will indeed take a toll on both parties.

Luckily, there are a set of rules of work rules a code of conduct to which they can align themselves and use it to enlighten the insubordinate employee for their behavior and deal with the situation in general.

What Is Insubordination?

Conference Room Meeting

Typically employees become insubordinate when they willfully refuse to perform or to work on an assigned task. In addition to that, being flagrant, hostile, disrespectful, and using inappropriate and abusive language to superiors is also considered insubordination. 

Let us define insubordination.

“The definition of insubordination states that it is direct defiance of any authority (any higher-ups) or a direct refusal to obey a completely rational and reasonable order given.”

Aside from refusal to carry out work, insubordination also constitutes non-performance, giving out inappropriate comments, and confrontation. And even using a non-verbal expression of dissatisfaction, such as eye-rolling, makes faces behind their supervisors disrespectful. 

Technically insubordination must have the general elements before it is considered one. But remember that there are also instances that these elements of insubordination are not present.  

General elements of insubordination

  1. The employer gives the order.
  2. The employee acknowledges the order.
  3. The employee refuses to carry out the order.

A superior should know how to weigh and make a reasonable decision regarding the offending employee. It is also important to note that superiors must not act hastily in dealing with insubordination. 

Delaying disciplinary actions must be avoided. If not, other employees will get the impression that disrespectful behavior and being disobedient is tolerable. 

Why Does Insubordination Happen? 

Insubordination can come from a variety of different reasons. Your employee might be dealing with a lot of stressful situations at work and in his personal life. Juggling life and work is never a walk in the park. 

Here are some scenarios that might lead to employee insubordination.

  • He/she might have fallen into some trouble that does not allow him/her to behave as he usually would and is less motivated to focus on his job due to an underlying problem.
  • Maybe there was a form of miscommunication in the information exchange. The order simply did not reach the employer, in which case the task assignment infrastructure might need some restructuring.
  • It could have been a response to the supervisor’s mistreatment of said employee. While an odd case, it’s not particularly rare, mostly because many people view work as a competitive environment between their colleagues and sometimes feel threatened. 
  • Suppose an employee is vying for a promotion that would directly endanger a manager’s position. In that case, the manager could feel threatened and likely to start applying unnecessary pressure on the employee. 
  • In some instances, managers intentionally assign a lot of unnecessary workload to their subordinates. It results in not meeting deadlines, poor performance, and worst is that they are wrongfully accused of non-performance in their job wherein it is the manager’s fault in the first place. 

That said, it is not the employee who will be the victim in many of these cases. While yes, all of these things can happen and are not rare by any sense of the word, and sometimes it is defined as insubordinate just like that simply insubordination. 

You might hire a lousy worker, someone who’s been slacking for a while now, and his poor performance and insolence in obeying direct orders might just be showing now that you have looked into this.

Maybe you will even discover that he’s had a history of using abusive language in the workplace with many of his other staff members and is prone to displaying the sort of employee insubordinate behavior outlined as prohibited clearly in the employee handbook.  

It is advisable to deal with insubordination as soon as it occurs. The supervisor must keep an eye and be vigilant on the first sign of any disrespect, rudeness, aggression, and any other employee’s insubordinate behavior. 

The insubordinate behavior of an employee also constitutes the whole act of disobedience towards a superior. So what is insubordinate behavior? 

Insubordinate behavior has three parts:

  • Rude behavior.
  • Aggressive behavior.
  • Threatening behavior.

The behaviors mentioned above needed immediate action before it gets worst. Regardless of the cause, it is necessary to keep a cool head when going about this. Firing employees on the spot over disciplinary issues is never the right solution. 

Conflict in the Workplace

The Difference Between Insubordination, Insolence, And Misconduct 

Insubordination and insolence are often misinterpreted and interchanged by most employers and HR personnel. 

To clear the confusion between these terms, here is a simple definition of the two. 

  • Insubordination refers to the intentional refusal to do a reasonable task.
  • Insolence refers to rudeness, the use of inappropriate language directed to a particular supervisor. 

Most define insubordination as a serious offense because it is outright disobedience and resistance to authority. While insolence may not fall directly into a severe act of disobedience, but then again, it must not be taken lightly. These minor issues tend to lead to more serious behavioral problems in the future. 

Misconduct, on the other hand, has two categories: gross and general. 

  • Gross misconduct is egregious and subject to termination following a proper investigation on the matter. It includes the most common acts of theft and fraud, property damage, drug and alcohol use, breach of safety protocol, and the likes.
  • General misconduct is not egregious and is also known as simple misconduct; this means there is no intention to harm the company or another employee. Examples of general misconduct are chronic tardiness and absenteeism, internet misuse, and more. 

5 Examples of Insubordination in the Workplace

Office Politics

  1. Refusing An Order
  2. Workplace Confrontation
  3. Abusive Language
  4. Intimidation and Harassment
  5. Act of Insolence

1. Refusing An Order

Refusing an order is the most common reason for insubordination. However, if the employee failed to accomplish a task because of misinterpretation, it will be considered only a minor misunderstanding. 

It is also essential to get to the root as to why the employee is refusing an order. As a supervisor of the disobedient employee, ask yourself these following questions, “Are you making unreasonable requests?” “Is the task that you are requesting out of his job description?”

But in many cases, when an employee intentionally refused to accomplish a reasonable job, the act of refusal is defined as insubordinate. This refusal of order will reflect poorly on the supervisor and decrease the overall morale of the workplace. 

2. Workplace Confrontation

When a disagreement happens privately between an employee and a supervisor, it is not considered insubordination. But when the offending employee talked outside about it to their other colleagues and refused to settle the argument between them, it is highly to become insubordination. 

For the reason that there will be a likelihood of disrespect, hate, and defamation towards that particular superior from the other employees. 

3. Abusive Language

The use of inappropriate or abusive language directly to a superior can count as insubordination.

In other instances, such as when the offending employee has said nasty words and was provoked by the superior during a heated argument, it cannot be considered insubordination. 

But if the offending employee continued to curse after settlement and still use vulgar words towards the superior, he can be terminated by this. 

4. Intimidation and Harassment

Workplace intimidation is also considered workplace bullying. It happens when a superior, a colleague, or a subordinate employs physical threats or violence, verbal abuse, or blackmail to manipulate an employee for professional gain. 

Here are some instances of workplace intimidation:

  1. Insult or ridiculing an employee in front of other colleagues.
  2. Taking the credit for the other employee’s work.
  3. Sabotaging the work of an employee, setting him to fail.
  4. Hostile physical posturing.

Verbal or physical harassment based on gender and sex towards an employee can be considered sexual harassment. Take note that this act or threat of physical violence and sexual harassment is grounds for immediate termination. 

5. Act of Insolence

Generally, an act of insolence is associated with talking back, aggressively arguing, speaking disrespectfully, and portray such body languages that show disrespect.

In this case, the act of insolence can be considered employee insubordination when it meets the following conditions:

  1. The working relationship between the offending employee and the supervisor is irreparably damaged and not feasible.
  2. It has tainted the supervisor’s credibility and ability to carry out his duties and responsibilities properly.
  3. It has caused the loss of reputation of the employer and affected the business interests and finances.

How To Deal With An Insubordinate Employee?

Workplace Harassment

Being a leader entails many responsibilities. Sometimes, even if you have impressive leadership skills and qualifications to lead a team. There will always be that one insubordinate employee who will test your mettle. And you have to deal with insubordination no matter what. 

Insubordination is an issue in the workplace that must not be neglected and should be dealt with systematically. 

Here are some tips on dealing with employee insubordination. 

  1. Set Clear Boundaries
  2. Stay Professional
  3. Listen To Your Employees
  4. Never Fire A Person On The Spot
  5. Give The Employee A Chance To Explain
  6. Coordinate With The HR Department
  7. Take Disciplinary Actions
  8. Documentation
  9. Follow All Laws And Ethical Standards
  10. Termination

1. Set Clear Boundaries

It is best to discuss with your subordinates your limits in the beginning. Be clear and precise about what you want and not. So they know whether or not they have crossed the line. Setting clear boundaries helps avoid conflicts in the future. 

2. Stay Professional

Whether you are a manager or a small business owner (or large), you should be an exemplar of work etiquette the very antithesis of insubordination and never stoop to the same level as the problematic person on hand.

Avoid reacting in the same manner at any cost, even if it means taking a step back. Breathe deeply and remain calm. Keep your cool, and keep in mind that losing your temper to an insubordinate employee is futile. 

A cool head will help you both save face and deal with the situation accordingly, instead of resorting to rash decisions driven by emotion rather than logic. 

3. Listen To Your Employees

One of the most crucial aspects of successful businesses is their level of established communication. 

An excellent communication level makes the work environment feel safer for employees. It allows for an overall faster and more streamlined workflow. 

It also leads to happier employees who are more content to give it their all when working toward a specific goal in more amicable conditions. 

Superiors must have the best listening skills and must also be good communicators

A good communicator does these 3 things:

  1. They keep everyone informed.
  2. They encourage discussion.
  3. They listen. 

On the other hand, having little to no communication between co-workers and having a generally poor flow in your business information network can lead to the exact opposite: lower productivity, higher tensions, worker alienation, and a more toxic work environment.

In general, it will lead to a higher chance of insubordinate behavior occurring.

The level of group communication can be solved through better task organization and restructuring of your information network. Team-building exercises and sessions should be incorporated somewhere into the company schedule as well. 

Naturally, it is not always that easy, as communication has its layers, and group communication is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Being able to communicate and relate to an individual is also a rather important facet of managerial duties. Insubordination is bound to happen at some point; there is no perfect workplace as there will always be challenges to overcome. It is merely natural in the current day and age. 

4. Never Fire A Person On The Spot

An employer’s biggest mistake when dealing with insubordination is the outright firing of a person.  

Firing an employee on the spot paints both the employer and the workplace as crude, intolerable, and overly strict, which will cause issues when looking to hire and train new employees

And will cause a severe shift in the trust the rest of the employees have in the company, leading them to fear for their position. This scenario will only give rise to further problems.

The perfect step on how to deal with insubordination is to take the time, pause. And figure out an appropriate disciplinary action for the level of insubordinate behavior received from the employee’s end.    

5. Give The Employee A Chance To Explain

The first time you hear your employee refuses a given order, ask them to explain their stance instead of reprimanding an employee for insubordination: “Why is it that they are unwilling to comply?”

Maybe there is something there that you are not seeing, but the employee is. As you see, employees tend to care about the health of the company that they work for. 

The given order was possibly inefficient, unsafe, or unethical for them to perform, and it does not fit into their job description; that is why they refused to do it. 

If, however, you are the one who is in the right and their argument is not as solid as they had initially thought, a slight reprimand is sufficient. 

And if it was just a minor infraction and agreed to do the task right after that. There was no harm done, after all not a lot anyway. 

However, suppose they still refuse to perform their given assignment despite the task falling within the scope of their job description and the company code of conduct. And their argument ends up not being valid.

In that case, it is time to raise the issue with the HR department. 

Fighting in the Workplcae

6. Coordinate With The HR Department

HR, an abbreviation for Human Resources, is a part of the company that oversees all administrative processes to deal with employee interactions. HR typically do the hirings, firings, various consultations, and sometimes stress management.

They are responsible for keeping the workplace atmosphere as tolerable of a level as possible and serving as the middleman between the workforce and upper management.

It is in their job description to determine what needs to be done about employee insubordination cases. In addition to that, it is also up to them to analyze the issue and judge who was wrong.

They do this by seeing things from the employee’s perspective first, putting themselves in his shoes to determine what ended up being the cause for such insubordinate behavior in the first place.

They want to see if the reasoning was valid or if it was just a case of an overblown ego or outright laziness and disrespect toward their supervisors. 

Sometimes, it’s even better if a third, unbiased party is brought in to investigate these claims so that there’s no personal bias in the air that might sway the decision. It is where a private HR firm might come in handy more so than your own if you have an HR department. 

Naturally, not everyone can afford to hire outside help for every case of insubordination that might happen. There are so many companies trying to categorize expenses. In most cases, they decide to let their HR department handle the issue. Plus, your HR department is better acquainted with the company code of conduct than anyone on the outside might be. 

 In any case, the most common resolution to this dilemma is finding out that the case of insubordinate behavior came from a clash of two vastly different personalities. 

The manager and the employee simply might not mesh, and it’s time to transfer one of them over to a different department. 

The other common cause of insubordination is a simple misunderstanding. It ties back into the communication problem spoken of earlier. The order may have gotten lost in the chain of information exchange or was not relayed properly.

Of course, sometimes insubordination is what it is, with not a valid enough reason described by the company code of conduct (the guideline for every staff member on how they should act in the workplace). 

When this happens, it’s time to deliver appropriate measures described in your company’s disciplinary policy.

7. Take Disciplinary Actions

Now that the case of insubordinate behavior has been justly proven, it is time to take disciplinary action. But what exactly is the right call here? 

We have talked earlier about how outright firing or termination is rarely the right thing to do. Still, it is all dependent upon the disciplinary policy described in the code of conduct. 

Some companies are so strict that one misstep could end in instant termination. 

Plus, some egregious edge-cases of insubordination where the action is outright illegal or a case of outright workplace harassment simply call for such harsh punishment. 

That is simply because nothing else fits it better, and keeping them on board will hurt the company’s image and the trust and respect that your employees put in you. 

But these are what they are edge cases and these will hopefully never have to be considered. As far as your regular workplace infractions go, the most common way of going about it is to employ the baseball rule: Three strikes and you are out. 

It means that the first two textbook insubordinate behavior cases will be dealt with through a meeting with the person in question with an issued written warning. The first one usually tends to be verbal, while the second is a more formal, insubordination write-up. 

If it were ever to reach strike three, well, then it is time to call the termination meeting. It is done so that it is fair for the employee’s side so that they can be given enough of a chance to improve on their behavior. 

It also helps your case if they decide to sue you over this termination later because you will have plenty of evidence proving your side of the story and why it led to such actions in the first place.

It is a system that benefits both employer and employee without seeming too cruel or too lenient at any given time. This way, they won’t risk making the mistake of losing an outstanding employee due to a few fumbles they have made throughout a long-standing career. 

Now, the disciplinary policy also helps outline what constitutes an infraction and what does not. 

What constitutes insubordination in one place may not in another, which is why it is essential to keep the disciplinary policy of one’s own company in mind and why, again, HR is the best judge in the case of it.

8. Documentation

As incidents like this happen in the workplace, make sure to document each one as objectively as possible. Documentation will provide a paper trail when the time comes to discipline again the said employee. 

Establish the facts of the incident in written form, like the issued insubordination write-up. You might as well save emails, get a hold of the written documents regarding the task, and remember to document insubordinate behavior, ask witnesses for statements. 

And always collaborate with HR to do proper documentation regarding the employee’s disobedience. 

9. Follow All Laws And Ethical Standards

You do not make rash decisions when it comes to insubordination. It is advisable to follow all laws and ethical standards and conduct a proper investigation regarding the incident. You must also know what is considered insubordination in the workplace. 

You do not want to be sued for injustice and wrongful dismissal for a disobedient employee because you did not carefully follow the laws and standards. 

10. Termination

This step, as extreme as it may be, is bound to happen at some point during your lifespan or your acting duty as a manager, CEO, or another leadership role. 

As much as we would all like to have a perfect company where everyone is happy doing their 9-5, and there are no wrenching thrown into this well-oiled machine, sometimes a cog breaks off and runs loose. That is when it is time to replace it. 

A crude comparison, for sure, but one that best explains the process that happens the economic machine’s operation. 

Just like with a machine, you should not pull the cog out while it is in full force but instead wait until the end of the workday to call the meeting and deliver the bad news to the person. This way, it won’t sour everyone else’s atmosphere since termination is rarely received well. 

Doing it this way helps keep the day as productive as it can be. If done at the end of the week, it can even give you enough time to find a replacement or adjust the insubordinate employee’s workload not to overburden the others with workforce loss. 

Now, for the actual termination meeting. Treat as if you are pulling a bandaid off. That means no small talk, no beating around the bush. Avoid reprimanding the employee for insubordination. Be clear and direct, and make sure to be calm and professional. 

When they get in, allow them to take a seat first before delivering the decision over to them.

Have the necessary paperwork, such as the insubordination write-up, ready with the copies if needed so you can both have one as you run them down the list of all the infractions that they have committed that have led to this decision. 

Once that is done, let them have a moment to process this, stay silent, and let them get a response in. It won’t change the decision in most cases of what is considered insubordination in the workplace.

It shouldn’t, as you need to reflect on the fact that you follow through with the company policy with no exception, and you have already given them plenty of chances. That said, it will help them level their tidal wave of emotion and let them calm down as they come to terms with this decision.

It is always hard to fire someone. I am aware of this because I was in this position multiple times. 

I’ve had to fire many work colleagues. I’ve had good relations with them because they just were not performing up to company rules. If someone has to be the boogeyman, it may as well be the manager, team leader, or any other higher-up. It is part of our responsibility, after all. 

Once all is said and done, and you have explained how the process will go, what will happen to everything they have worked on, and whether they get it to retain any benefits or not, it is time to see them out. 

Have them clear their desk out for their future replacement and leave the premises. Make sure to remain calm and level-headed about this.

Again, as harsh as it may seem, a company is a place of business, and making sure to keep a healthy environment and not risk the growth of the company’s business will require actions such as these. The machine needs to keep turning. 


We define insubordination as direct defiance of any authority or refusal to obey a completely rational and reasonable order. Unfortunately, it is purely unavoidable. 

It is a challenging topic to tackle in the workplace, especially if you are the company’s owner. It requires a sound, unbiased mind that cannot be easily influenced by outside factors to make the right decision.

You must also keep in mind that you cannot please everyone in your company. No matter how hard you try, there will always be some resentments, and there will always be someone who is not happy with your decisions, rules, or leadership. 

It is bound to leave a sour taste in your mouth. After all, you are directly influencing someone’s future. But you have to realize that it was the offending employee’s fault, to begin with because they are the ones who ended up breaching the terms of their employment. 

Do not put this pressure solely on yourself as it isn’t yours to bear fully, but someone has to take some of it.

Always be adamant and quick to react when it comes to this workplace challenge, pinpoint its location, and stop it in its tracks before it gets out of control.

It might be a thankless job at times. Still, you ensure that every other loyal and rule-abiding employee has a future by keeping the company from suffering any significant losses or problems.   

Even though gross insubordination can lead to immediate dismissal, one must be subjected to a fair procedure, no matter what the offense is. Do not let your emotions cloud your judgment.  

Written By
After working as a financial advisor for 8 years, Christine Carter knows all the money hacks and tips and she is willing to share with everyone! You can find all her advice on how to earn, make and save more money and enter the world of financial freedom on Find your Mom Tribe blog.

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