Define Insubordination in the Workplace

One of the issues that is almost always present in the workplace, regardless of the culture of camaraderie, ethics, and teamwork being cultivated, is insubordination. There is always one or two employees with bad attitudes and who refuse to work for the job that they signed up in. It’s just too bad that the recruitment officer did not see the disruptive behavior behind an employee’s smiling and friendly façade before they were hired. But now that they are part of the organization, kicking them out would not be as easy.

Insubordinate behavior, however, is grounds for termination. But before any action is taken against a problematic employee, it is vital that he is aware about company policies pertaining to insubordination, or that HR officers made it perfectly clear what constitutes insubordination in the company handbook or during employee orientation. The lack thereof can lead to confusion, and might even give an insubordinate employee the upper hand.

What Exactly Is Insubordination In The Workplace?

If it was anywhere else but in the office, insubordination can refer to someone who is disrespectful or disobedient. But its definition is more specific in a corporate setting, and should not be confused with insolence. Insubordination at work is when an employee refuses to obey a direct order from a supervisor. In a legal aspect, it can also mean willful or intentional disobedience of a lawful and reasonable request by a supervisor. It may also refer to disrespect or harassment that is directed toward a superior.

The California Supreme Court defined it as “a refusal to obey some order which a superior officer is entitled to give and entitled to have obeyed”, which has been expanded by the Employment Development Department of California to cover other situations — “(1) disobeying an employer’s order or instruction, (2) disputing or ridiculing authority, (3) exceeding authority or (4) using vulgar or profane language towards a supervisor”.

Although the gist of the definition is almost the same, insubordination can take many forms. Apart from refusal to carry out work, it also constitutes non-performance, inappropriate comments, confrontation, inappropriate language, and even non-verbal expression of dissatisfaction, such as eye rolling as a gesture of disrespect. Considering these situations, it is important that HR officers clearly define what constitutes insubordination in the workplace.

General Elements of Insubordination

1. A directive was given to an employee.
2. He received and understood clearly what is being asked of him.
3. He refused to obey a direct order by stating his refusal explicitly, or through non-performance.

But there are instances when not all elements are present, or when there is a clear display of insubordination but not enough grounds for termination. This is where things can get a little blurry.

Examples of Insubordination

1. Refusing An Order
This is probably the best example of insubordination. However, if an employee failed to complete the task because he did not understand what was expected of him, it would be considered a minor misunderstanding. Even if a superior thinks it was a lame excuse, he has to provide a written record to make it a case of insubordination against a worker.

If the task goes against ethics or legality, an employee must express his concern to his direct supervisor or another member of management, so he won’t be accused of insubordination if he decides to not carry out the order. An employee also has the right to refuse an order if the work is unsafe or if it will put him in imminent danger.

2. Workplace Confrontation
It is not considered insubordination if disagreement between a supervisor and employee happens in private. It only becomes one when a staff refuses to settle the argument or brags about it to their colleagues. This is because there will be a tendency of disrespect through the use of inappropriate comments, defamation, and even cultivation of hatred and animosity among staff towards a particular superior.

3. Abusive Language
Using inappropriate or abusive language directed to or in reference to a manager can count as insubordination, but not when it was provoked by a superior, spoken in private, common ‘shop talk’, or only used during an angry confrontation. If the dust has settled and an employee continues to curse or use vulgar language towards a manager, he can be terminated.

4. Intimidation and Harassment
Being cursed by an employee is something that a supervisor may be able to remedy, but verbal or physical aggression is an entirely different matter, something that should be treated with zero tolerance. Whether or not to terminate, however, still depends on the level of action shown by an employee. If he threatens to turn other employees against you, for example, you can have him suspended for a short period. But an act or threat of physical violence is grounds for immediate termination.

5. Act of Insolence
In the case Henry v. Foxco Ltd., an employee was dismissed for yelling profanities in front of other staff and taunting his employer to fire him, after he was asked about the length of time that it took him to get the job done and the kind of tools he used. The judged deemed that he was wrongfully dismissed, but he couldn’t decide if the employee was insubordinate or just insolent. In the end, the employee’s misconduct was only categorized as insolence. But it would have been insubordination if it meets any of the following circumstances:

a. Maintaining a working relationship between employee and supervisor is no longer possible.

b. It has affected the supervisor’s credibility and ability to properly carry out his role and function.

c. It caused employer loss of reputation or business interests and finances.


Because insubordination in the workplace is categorized as disobedience and disrespect, a company must not only have policies that prohibit insubordination, but also guidelines of what constitute insubordinate behaviors. There should exist a normal procedure for disciplinary action as well, because outright termination is not always the best and appropriate solution. Depending on the gravity of the act, sanctions can be given as verbal warning, written warning, suspension and immediate termination.

Although it is important that supervisors or employers do not act hastily in situations of insubordination, delaying disciplinary actions must be avoided. Otherwise, other personnel might get the impression that disrespectful and disobedient behavior is acceptable.