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Does an Employee Have a Right to Refuse a Work Assignment?

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Under normal circumstances, an employee risks discipline and even termination for insubordination. However, court decisions have affirmed the rights of workers to refuse assignments in situations where imminent danger exists, the act is illegal or immoral, or the request is discriminatory.

Rules of Insubordination

Refusing a work assignment without legal protection is known as insubordination. Employers can and do terminate workers for acts of insubordination. If you refuse a task assignment, the employer has to demonstrate that you were issued a direct order and understood the request, according to a May 2012 BizFilings article. The employee must refuse the task assignment or fail to comply. Except in extreme incidence where the insubordination is aggressive, abusive or threatening, managers often document patterns of insubordinate behavior prior to termination.

Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

A 1980 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court protected the rights of workers to refuse task assignments that presented a high risk of fatality or significant injury. As long as the refusal is reasonable and is made in good faith, employers cannot discriminate against workers who refuse the task, according to the Communications Workers of America. The employee should communicate concerns to the supervisor assigning the task, offer to perform safer tasks and wait for a response. If punishment or discipline is instituted, a unionized worker may have grounds to file a grievance, while a non-unionized worker may have grounds for a lawsuit if punishment is issued in a discriminatory fashion.

Protection From Religious Discrimination

Employees also have ample legal protection when they refuse to perform certain work activities because of religious beliefs. State and federal laws, including Title VII, address religious protections. The basic requirement for employers is that they make reasonable accommodations based on the religious beliefs expressed by the worker. Someone refusing to restock the beer keg in a lounge of a traditional office would likely have more legal ground than someone refusing to serve drinks in a bar, for instance. The employee must clearly communicate the need for an accommodation. Also, requests made based on uncommon religions with few followers generally aren't protected, reports employment and labor lawyer William B. deMeza Jr.

Other Right to Refuse Examples

Employees may also object to work assignments when the directive contradicts workplace policies or government regulations. An employee may refuse work that is illegal, for instance, reports BizFilings. If company policy is that all workers must complete a training process before performing a certain task, an employee without such training has the right to refuse a manager's directive to perform the task. Employers risk discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuits when termination conflicts with communicated policies.


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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