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What Is Insubordination in the Workplace?

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Insubordination in the workplace means willful refusal by an employee to follow a directive given by a manager. From a company's standpoint, it is important to determine whether insubordination is significant enough to terminate the employee, or whether the situation can be remedied.

Examples of Insubordination

Insubordination can be found in all kinds of jobs across all kinds of industries. A sales representative refusing to call on a prospect that a manager directed him to contact is an example of insubordination. In a retail store, an employee refusing to vacuum the floor or perform other routine cleaning tasks despite directions to do so is also insubordination. Abusive or disrespectful actions or language from an employee toward a supervisor also constitutes insubordination, according to a May 2012 BizFilings article. Though insubordination still occurs, it has become less common in workplaces as of 2015 because of more informal management-worker relationships and increased autonomy in worker roles, reports HR Zone.

Problems with Insubordination

Insubordination creates a number of problems. Most directly, the insubordinate worker undermines his supervisor and the company itself by not carrying out roles or responsibilities the company relies on. This can lead to tension, lower morale and lower productivity. It's not always easy to measure the actual cost of lower morale and productivity, though calculating the cost of having to terminate an insubordinate employee is pretty straightforward. It can cost thousands of dollars to hire and train a new employee. Insubordination also sets a bad tone in the employer-employee relationship and can disrupt the normal work flow. Employees who follow the rules may become frustrated or annoyed if a worker is allowed to blatantly disregard his responsibilities. In a team setting, insubordination can cause other employees to have to pick up the slack of the insubordinate worker.

Handling Insubordinate Employees

To effectively address worker insubordination, a manager needs to remain calm and professional. Depending on the extent or persistence of the behavior, there are a couple common strategies. For more moderate instances of insubordination, such as an employee who neglects duties from time to time but otherwise has a decent attitude, a good first step is to implement a discipline program that includes regular documented meetings. In more extreme cases, such as when an employee is excessively profane and abusive in front of other workers, immediate termination may be the right move. Termination may also become necessary when discipline processes don't work to change behavior.

Preventing Discrimination Lawsuits

One reason to remain calm and to make appropriate decisions is to guard against lawsuits for discrimination or wrongful termination. You don't necessarily need a formal policy to fire someone for insubordination, but having one is a great defense against a lawsuit. The business must demonstrate that the worker refused a direct order through explicit language or intentional nonperformance. When the termination is for abusive language, the language must have not been provoked by the supervisor and must have been spoken in front of other people. Recording directions and the employee's responses or actions prior to termination helps in a lawsuit defense. It is also helpful to explain how the employee's insubordination harmed the business.


Neil Kokemuller has been an active business, finance and education writer and content media website developer since 2007. He has been a college marketing professor since 2004. Kokemuller has additional professional experience in marketing, retail and small business. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University.

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