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

The other issue that stems from this is the way said managers will react. They have to walk a very fine line to not get immediately scrutinized for the way they handled the situation, usually meaning they cannot react in the same tone as the offending employee.

At least not unless they want to stoop to the infringing employee’s level, but that is hardly the way to resolve an issue such as this.

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

The most important thing in this situation is for managers to stay professional and rely on HR to sort the problem out in a calm and professional manner, rather than risk their position over an unwanted outburst themselves.

That said, you can’t always have them deal with every case of insubordinate behavior. There should be a system in place to deal with this on top of your Human Resources Department.

Why Does Insubordination Happen?

Insubordination can come from a variety of different sources. Your employee might be dealing with a lot of stressful situations at home; he might have fallen into some trouble that’s not allowing him to behave as he normally 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 and an order simply didn’t reach the employer, in which case the task assignment infrastructure might need some restructuring.

It could’ve also been a response to the supervisor’s mistreatment of said employee. While an odd case, it’s not particularly rare, mostly because a lot of people view work as a competitive environment between their colleagues and sometimes feel threatened.

If an employee is vying for a promotion that would directly endanger a manager’s position, the manager could feel threatened and is very likely to start applying unnecessary pressure on the employee.

This is usually done through assigning increasingly difficult tasks until it becomes nigh-impossible to perform them in a given amount of time, putting too much on the employee’s plate, and leading them to lash out with intentional refusal to comply with such actions.

tips to solve insubordination in the workplace

This then wrongfully flags them for non-performance and makes them the aggressor in all of this, when in reality, it might have been the manager’s fault in the first place, which gets chalked up as employee abuse and is a worse stain on your business than insubordinate behavior.

Learn to never play favorites in this case and always apply the rules equally to never ruin the image of fair and equal treatment in your business.

That said, it’s not the employee that’s going to be the victim in many of these cases. While yes, all of these things can happen and aren’t rare by any sense of the word, sometimes insubordination is just that – insubordination.

You might’ve just hired a bad worker, someone who has either been slacking for a while now, and his poor performance and insolence in obeying direct orders might just be showing now that you’ve actually looked into this.

Maybe you’ll 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 behavior clearly outlined as prohibited in the employee handbook.

Regardless of what the cause may be, it’s necessary to keep a cool head when going about this. Firing employees on the spot over disciplinary issues is never the right solution and should only be done after at least a written warning has been issued, if not several.

That isn’t the only thing you should keep in mind when looking to resolve the problem of employee insubordination though. There are a few other things to consider.

How To Deal With Insubordination In The Workplace

1. Stay Professional

Whether you’re a manager or 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. 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.

2. Keep Communication Levels High

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

A good level of communication makes the work environment feel safer for the employees and 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.

On the other hand, having little to no communication between fellow 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, leading to a higher chance of insubordinate behavior occurring.

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

Not only will it help freshly recruited employees better incorporate themselves into the existing employee clique, but it’ll also help in keeping and improving upon the existing level of cohesion between your current members of staff.

Naturally, it’s 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’s simply natural in the current day and age.

company values improves employee commitment and loyalty

Sure, this will be a lot easier to approach if you’ve had a good level of group communication set up prior to this insubordinate behavior surfacing, but this is where this second layer of individual communication comes in. 

If the employer empathizes with the employee and sits down with them properly to dig deep and find the root cause of this insubordination, the employee will find it easier to open up and this can be resolved a lot quicker than normal.

Naturally, the infringing party will not walk away without any repercussion, but at least no severe disciplinary action will need to be taken nor will the issue have to be escalated if you manage to successfully defuse it. No need to spread the stress out when you can contain it.

If you’ve both reached an understanding, then the best way of going about this is by means of a simple written warning or a light suspension to allow the employee in question to sort any of their underlying issues out then come back to their station afterward.

Naturally, the appropriate level of discipline should be applied based on the severity of the infraction in the first place.

Also Read 4 Damaging Effects of Office Miscommunication (And How Widespread It Is)

3. Never Fire A Person On The Spot

The biggest mistake an employer can make when having to deal with insubordination is outright firing a person even when the level of insubordinate behavior was minor.

This paints both you and your workplace as crude, intolerable, and overly strict, which will cause issues when looking to hire and train new employees and cause a severe shift in the trust the rest of your employees have in you, leading them to fear for their position. This will only give rise to further problems. 

There are plenty of other solutions out there that don’t involve adding extra pressure to your well-oiled working machine by removing one cog that may very well have been crucial.

Take the time to figure out an appropriate disciplinary action for the level of insubordinate behavior received from the employee’s end. 

4. Give The Employee A Chance To Explain

The first time that you hear your employee refuses a given order, ask them to explain their stance: Why is it that they aren’t willing to comply?

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

The better it’s doing, the safer their job is in the long run. That’s why they tend to form a lot of opinions.

Maybe the given order was inefficient or was indeed unsafe or unethical to perform, depending on their job description.

Get into a healthy debate with them and be ready to provide counter-arguments if needed, but always make sure to give them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone is always trying to shirk their duties; a lot of people do want to keep their jobs.

If they present a healthy and valid case for their argument, then there’s not much else left to discuss on the subject outside of asking them for ideas on how to improve upon the existing system.

Who knows, you might just end up promoting them off of something like this and they may have just saved you a sizable sum of money you would’ve spent on research otherwise.

If however, you’re the one who is in the right and their argument isn’t as solid as they had initially thought, a slight reprimand is fine if it was just a minor infraction and if they agree to do the task right thereafter. There was no harm done, after all – not a lot anyway.

However, if 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 ending up not being valid, it’s time to raise the issue to the HR department.

Employees discussing work problems

5. HR: The Cornerstone Of A Company’s Health

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

They’re the ones responsible for keeping the workplace atmosphere as tolerable of a level as possible and are there to serve as the middleman between workforce and upper management.

It’s in their job description to determine what needs to be done about cases of insubordination and it’s up to them to analyze the case to judge who was in the wrong in these matters.

The way they do this is 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 indeed 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. This 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 and in most cases, they decide to let their HR department handle the issue. Plus, your own 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 in hopes of improving workflow and reducing the chances of it happening again.

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

Sometimes a whole different person might be to blame and a trail can be followed to the source of the problem.

Of course, sometimes insubordination is what it is, with not a valid enough reason as 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 as described in your company’s disciplinary policy.

6. Take Disciplinary Action

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

We’ve talked earlier about how outright firing or termination is almost never the right thing to do, but it all is 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’s simply because there is nothing else that 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’re out.

What this means is that the first two cases of textbook insubordinate behavior will be dealt with through a meeting with the person in question with issued warnings. The first one usually tends to be verbal while the second is a more formal, written one.

If it were ever to reach strike three, well, then it’s time to call the termination meeting.

The reason it’s done in such a manner is so it’s fair for the employee 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’ll have plenty of evidence proving your side of the story and why it led to such actions in the first place.

It’s a system that benefits both employer and employee without seeming too cruel or too lenient at any given time.

Some companies even go as far enough to remove one of these strikes if the employee exemplifies an improvement in their behavior over a certain course of time (usually a year of no further infraction committed).

This way they won’t risk making the mistake of losing an outstanding employee due to a few fumbles they’ve made over the course of a long-standing career.

Now, the disciplinary policy also helps outline what constitutes an infraction and what doesn’t.

I’ll take cursing and bad-mouthing as an example. While it’s common that such language directed at a higher-up or a fellow employee is unacceptable, it’s also not uncommon for it to be simple shop talk – things people joke around the watercooler while on the break with no ill intent meant behind those words. 

It helps people de-stress and some company policies allow for it if it doesn’t carry an overly malicious tone.

Another example would be questioning orders. Some places of employment don’t allow employees to debate a given order, while many modern companies do because they value everyone’s input.

What constitutes insubordination in one place may not in another, which is why it’s important 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.

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7. 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’d all like to have a perfect company where everyone is happy doing their 9-5 and there are no wrenches being thrown into this well-oiled machine, sometimes a cog does break off and run loose. That’s when it’s time to replace it.

A crude comparison, for sure, but one that best explains the process that happens – the process of the economic machine.

Just like with a machine, you shouldn’t pull the cog out while it’s in full force, but rather 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 the atmosphere for everyone else since termination is rarely if ever, 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 to adjust the insubordinate employee’s workload in a way that it doesn’t overburden the others with the loss of manpower.

Now, for the actual termination meeting. Treat it as if you’re pulling a bandaid off. That means no small talk; no beating around the bush. Be clear and direct, and make sure to be calm and professional.

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

Have the necessary paperwork ready with copies if needed so you can both have one as you run them down the list of all the infractions that they’ve committed that have led to this decision.

Once that’s 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, and it shouldn’t, as you need to reflect on the fact that you follow through with company policy with no exception, and you’ve 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’s 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 because they just weren’t 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’s part of our responsibility after all.

Once all is said and done, and you’ve explained how the process is going to go, what will happen to everything they’ve worked on, and about whether they get to retain any benefits or not, it’s 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 as well as not risk the growth of the company’s business will require actions such as these. The machine needs to keep turning.

8. Never Wave Off Insubordination

Insubordination is a serious workplace infraction and should always be handled in a timely manner. Never allow such behavior to linger in your place of business, and encourage others to report such cases should they arise through fair and just disciplinary action.

Many negligent company owners do the wrong thing when they ask the question “What does insubordination mean to the health of my company? It’s only a little bit of playful banter, it’ll sort itself out.” Oh, how wrong they are.

If you start giving leeway to the insubordinate employees in question, you’re only allowing this “virus” to grow and infect others. Why should they be the ones being forced to follow the code of conduct if it’s not being enforced consistently and the infringing party is allowed to do as they please?

It’s complacency like this that leads to the downfall of many companies. When insubordinate behavior spreads, the managers start losing their grip on the employees in their department, which is bound to lead to a catastrophic conclusion and a major loss in the company’s performance.

So make sure to never give people special treatment as an excuse to justify their toxic behavior. And act quickly so you’re able to cut the problem out at the source and you’ll be able to avoid the worst-case scenario.


Final Words

We define insubordination as direct defiance of any authority or refusal to obey a completely rational and reasonable order.

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

It’s bound to leave a sour taste in your mouth. After all, you’re directly influencing someone’s future. But you have to realize that it was their fault to begin with because they’re 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, but you’re ensuring that every other loyal and rule-abiding employee has a future by keeping the company from suffering any significant losses or problems.

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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