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Published July 10, 2023 (last updated on June 4, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer


Employee insubordination can be a major problem for businesses – it can lead to workplace conflicts, act as a blocker for progress and negatively affect company culture.   

As an employer, you should do everything possible to avoid instances of insubordination. Understanding what constitutes insubordination and how to respond to it is crucial if you want to maintain a positive work environment and a productive business. 

What is insubordination in the workplace? 

Workplace insubordination occurs when an employee intentionally disobeys a workplace authority figure and refuses to either carry out reasonable instructions or follow specific rules. An authority figure might be a manager, employer, business owner or another senior staff member. 

Normally an act of insubordination requires three steps: 

  1. The authority figure gives an order, either verbally or in writing.  

  2. The order is legal and reasonable.  

  3. The employee acknowledges the order but refuses to carry it out.  

How to identify insubordination   

You can use the three steps outlined above to determine if a workplace issue constitutes a case of workplace insubordination.  However, it’s important to understand that an employee’s refusal to carry out an order is not always considered insubordination.  

For example, if an order is illegal, unethical or creates a health and safety hazard, the employee should not follow it. Similarly, if an order involves performing a task that is outside an employee’s agreed job responsibilities, they may not be obliged to complete it. 

Additionally, failure to carry out an order because of a misunderstanding or miscommunication is not an act of insubordination. Sometimes unclear instructions or a lack of guidance can leave an employee confused and unable to complete a task, despite their best intentions to carry out the orders.   

What is an example of insubordination?   

Now that you understand what insubordination is, you might be wondering how it plays out in the workplace. There are many forms of employee insubordination – here are some practical examples: 

❌ Verbal insubordination 

Verbal insubordination involves speaking disrespectfully to a manager or authority figure. It includes openly expressing disobedience, challenging orders, or even using offensive language. 

As an example, an employee assigned a task by their supervisor during a team meeting might refuse the directive and tell the supervisor, “You don’t know what you’re doing”. This clearly breaks the chain of command, undermines the supervisor and represents an act of insubordination.

❌ Disobeying direct orders 

This is one of the most common forms of insubordination and involves refusing to follow reasonable instructions given by a senior.  

For example, if an employee is specifically instructed to prepare a report by a set deadline but fails to do so without giving any explanation or justification, this would be considered insubordination. 

Similarly, if an employee refuses to wear a safety helmet at a construction site despite explicit health and safety instructions in their employment contract, this will also be seen as insubordination. 

❌ Undermining authority 

Undermining authority refers to actions or behaviors that intentionally weaken or challenge the power, credibility and authority of a manager or senior.  

This might take the form of publicly challenging a manager’s decisions or competence, mocking or ridiculing them, or deliberately trying to make them look foolish or inadequate in front of other staff. 

Another example could be an employee spreading malicious rumors about a manager’s personal life in order to discredit them. 

❌ Gross insubordination 

Gross insubordination is defined as a severe and blatant act of disobedience that shows a complete disregard for authority and company rules. It involves extreme and inappropriate behavior that violates professional norms and can often result in instant dismissal for the employee. 

Gross insubordination is an act of serious misconduct, which might take the form of foul and abusive language, physical violence, criminal acts, or intentionally sabotaging a project to damage a business.  

How does insubordination affect a business? 

Insubordination can negatively impact a business in a number of ways. Some of these include: 

  • Challenging authority can damage a manager’s credibility among other employees and weaken the chain of command.  

  • Refusing to carry out tasks can create conflict, especially when other team members must complete unfulfilled tasks. 

  • Insubordination can spread through other team members, creating riffs between staff and a toxic company culture.

  • Failing to complete deliverables can impact a company’s productivity. 

  • Refusing to carry out orders can lead to a negative customer experience and possible legal ramifications when an agreed service is not delivered.     

  • An insubordinate employee may spread rumors about the company, leak confidential information, or make harmful statements about your business online, all of which can damage a company’s brand image.

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What are the causes of an insubordinate employee?

A lack of respect between staff

While insubordinate behaviour can stem from an employee’s lack of respect for authority, it can also be the consequence of unsupportive management.

When employees do not feel respected or valued, it can lead to resentment and job dissatisfaction. If they believe managers are unappreciative of their work or ignore the employee’s needs, they may develop a negative attitude that leads to workplace insubordination.

Disagreement with company policies or procedures

When staff members strongly disagree with specific policies or procedures, it can lead to a breakdown in compliance and a refusal to follow directives.

Ensuring team members buy into a new company policy or procedure is an effective way of preventing insubordination. For business to run smoothly, it’s important that employees have a say in how they complete their work.

Personal issues and stress outside of work

In certain circumstances, an employee can be dealing with personal issues and stress outside the workplace which can push them to behave in an insubordinate way.

This kind of situation can be difficult to spot – even though the employee doesn’t have any obvious problems with their colleagues and managers, they may resort to insubordination just to alleviate their personal stress.

What to do with an insubordinate employee

Unchecked insubordination can be the source of major problems for your business. If an insubordinate employee isn’t dealt with quickly and effectively, their negative attitude can spread through the workplace.

It’s important to have a clearly defined process that you follow every time an employee ignores a manager’s authority. When responding to insubordinate behaviour, follow these 6 simple steps:

  1. Stay calm: Insubordinate behaviour can be aggressive and intimidating, but it’s important that you don’t respond in the same way. Keep calm and make it clear that the employee’s behaviour won’t be tolerated. You might choose to wait until everybody has regained their composure to continue the conversation.  

  2. Investigate: Before you take an insubordination case any further, you’ll want to perform a thorough investigation and get all the facts straight. What happened? Why did the employee behave in that way? Were they justified in becoming angry or disobeying reasonable instructions? This is a good chance for everybody to voice their opinion about the events that took place.  

  3. Follow the disciplinary process: Your business should have a clear disciplinary process that it follows in the case of insubordinate employees, which will be documented in your employee handbook.

  4. Take disciplinary action: Depending on the nature of the insubordination and the circumstances, you may choose to discipline the employee. This could take the form of a written warning, verbal warning or a formal warning. In the case of serious misconduct, the discipline might be more severe and could result in immediate termination.

  5. Performance management: In less severe cases, managing employee performance can be more effective than disciplining insubordinate employees. A formal performance management process might include a performance agreement and performance review dates, with further disciplinary action if the performance plan is not adhered to and employee insubordination continues.

  6. Keep records: Be sure to keep detailed records of proceedings, including a written record of events and transcripts of any interviews. Any outcomes should be documented in writing and shared with the relevant employee. In the case of an unfair dismissal claim, it’s important to have accurate records of the entire process.  

How to prevent workplace insubordination

If you want to build a productive work environment, it’s wise to take all possible steps to prevent workplace insubordination before it occurs. As is often the case, prevention is the best cure.

As an employer, you should lay out the company’s insubordination policy in your employee handbook, including a definition of insubordination and a description of the disciplinary process for employees who disobey direct orders.

Make sure the consequences for insubordinate behaviour are also included in your employer contract. This will create a mutual agreement between the business and any new employees.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between insubordination and other misconduct?

The key difference between insubordination and other forms of misconduct is the employee’s willful intention to disobey an order.  

The employee can do this by explicitly stating that they will not complete an order, by ignoring the order (this is often called a ‘nonverbal refusal’), or by refusing to follow a company policy outlined in their employment contract.

Can you be fired for insubordination?

In more severe cases of insubordination, the employee’s behaviour can constitute gross misconduct, which may result in instant dismissal. Insubordinate employees who are placed onto a performance management plan but fail to improve can also be terminated for repeated misconduct.

An employer’s decision to dismiss an insubordinate employee will be guided by the relevant terms of their employment agreement and the National Employment Standards.

When it comes to performance management and insubordination, employers should always follow the correct processes. Peninsula are specialists in employee relations. You can call our FREE 24/7 Advice Line on 1300 651 415 to get all your questions answered.

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