What is Insubordination?

What is Insubordination?

Insubordination is a term that refers to the act of disobedience or defiance towards a person in a position of authority. Insubordination is a behavior that displays a lack of respect for authority or a refusal to follow the rules or directives. It can occur in any situation with a power dynamic between two individuals or groups, such as in the workplace, military, or educational settings. Insubordination can take many forms, including direct defiance, disrespect, or passive resistance. A supervisor's degree of respect and management skills would be undermined by such behavior, which is frequently a cause for disciplinary action, including termination. In this article, we will answer common questions about workplace insubordination which include; what is insubordination, what is considered insubordination at work, and some examples of insubordination.

What is considered insubordination at work?

Insubordination at work is generally considered any conduct that deviates from supervisory or employer expectations. Insubordination can include refusing to follow instructions, disregarding policies or procedures, and engaging in disrespectful or disruptive behavior toward colleagues or superiors.

An employee intentionally refusing to follow a legitimate and reasonable command in their employment contract or from their employer shows insubordination. A supervisor's degree of respect and management skills would be compromised by such a refusal, which is frequently cause for disciplinary action, including termination.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, insubordination at work typically occurs under the following circumstances:

  • An individual in a position of power issues a command, either orally or in writing.
  • The directive made is fair and legitimate.
  • The worker acknowledges the directive but declines to carry it out.

Employees who misunderstand instructions, miss directions, or are otherwise prevented from completing work due to a misunderstanding or hindrance are not acting insubordinately. Additionally, it is not considered insubordination when a worker declines to do something against company policy if it is unethical or risky.

Related: Understanding insubordination

What are some examples of insubordination?


There are many examples of insubordination that can occur in the workplace. Some of the most common examples of insubordination at work include:

Insubordination Examples

  1. Refusing to complete a task: When an employee refuses to carry out a task that their employer requires and falls under the scope of their position, they express insubordination.
  2. Refusal to adhere to company rules or policies: When an employee refuses to follow simple and reasonable company procedures without a valid reason, it is a form of insubordination.
  3. Acting disrespectfully toward the superiors: Whether orally using bad language or physically by making gestures such as eye-rolling.
  4. Unauthorized use of corporate resources: Employees may be considered insubordinate if they use company resources for their benefit. This can involve misusing tools or resources from the workplace for their use.
  5. Sabotaging organizational or team efforts: Employee insubordination may occur if they refuse to complete their assigned tasks for a project.
  6. Participating in unauthorized activity: It can be regarded as insubordination when an employee engages in unauthorized activity that violates the rules or guidelines established by their employer. This could entail acting against the business policy or exploiting company resources for private gain.

Other examples of insubordinate behavior can include

Subtle sabotage: This happens when instead of opposing out loud, an employee declines to do the duty and works quietly to undermine the project.

Avoiding behavior: An employee acknowledges your request but fails to carry it out. It is insubordination when an employee can accomplish something but opts not to. It differs from when a worker cannot perform the duties due to lacking resources or skills.

Doing the exact opposite of your instructions: This form of insubordination occurs when a worker disregards a manager's instructions and takes another course of action.

How do you handle insubordination in the workplace?

Insubordination at work can be dealt with in two ways; setting preventative measures before it happens and dealing with insubordination after it has already occurred.

Measures for preventing insubordination

  1. Establish clear boundaries/limits: Employees better understand what they must do when they know your expectations, which should reduce disagreement.
  2. Pay attention to your workers: Cases of insubordination typically arise from sincere differences between bosses and employees over the proper course of action. You will have plenty of time to find a solution before the insubordination even happens if you maintain an open line of communication and increase employee engagement with your staff when they respectfully share their concerns.
  3. Observe all ethical and legal requirements: If an employee ever feels that their employers were not following appropriate safety regulations, there is cause to file a lawsuit or have the matter heard by a labor board if they are accused of insubordination.

Dealing with insubordination after it has already happened

  1. Recognize the behavior right away. Directly addressing the problem is the first step in solving it. Ignoring insubordination, even briefly, will always lead to increased insubordination. Even if the situation is minor, simply letting it go establishes a rule in the office that your directions are only ideas, not absolutes.
  2. Note everything down. Managers frequently develop the bad habit of failing to record minor infractions since they prefer to wait until there is serious rebellion, no matter how minor the insubordinate behavior is, note it, get statements from any witnesses, and store everything in the appropriate file.
  3. Issue a formal warning. If the behavior persists, a formal warning that complies with your company's disciplinary policies may be issued.
  4. In exceptionally serious cases, summarily terminating the employee can be essential. Before firing them, check for this clause in the contract to prevent a claim of unfair dismissal. The employee must receive a formal written notice and a warning before the company can dismiss them.

Additionally, a manager must try to comprehend the reasons behind an employee's insubordination. According to the Harvard Business Review, organizations can frequently offer effective support through job redesign and relationship building to insubordinate employees. Previously viewed as difficult, employees might use their best qualities to work for the company rather than against it.

What is insubordination vs misconduct?

Insubordination and misconduct are two different types of behavior that can occur in the workplace. Insubordination refers specifically to disrespectful or defiant behaviour towards authority, such as a supervisor or employer. Misconduct, on the other hand, refers to any behavior that violates company policies or ethical standards. Misconduct can be viewed as gross insubordination.

Examples of misconduct may include theft, harassment, discrimination, or falsifying records. While insubordination can be considered a form of misconduct, not all forms of misconduct are insubordination.

What to do if your boss accuses you of insubordination?

The most crucial thing to do after receiving a formal warning for insubordination is to maintain your composure. Many workers aggressively confront their supervisor, which only worsens what could otherwise be a bad situation. Inquire about particular instances of conduct regarded as insubordination, and pay attention to your superior's worries. It's crucial to own up to any actions that may have been insulting or rebellious toward authority. If you disagree with the accusations, providing your perspective and any evidence supporting your position is important. Whilst doing so, it is important to avoid becoming defensive or argumentative, as this can escalate the situation.

If the situation cannot be resolved through a simple discussion with your superior, it may be necessary to involve human resources or seek legal advice. Consider speaking with an experienced employment attorney to examine your legal alternatives if you are certain that an accusation of insubordination is a form of discrimination, harassment, or retribution. However, exhausting all other options before taking legal action is important, as this can be costly and time-consuming.


Insubordination in the workplace is inevitable. No manager is completely protected from the potential of an employee defying their instructions, regardless of how many precautions they take to prevent it. Nevertheless, there are some actions you can take to manage it and reduce the likelihood that it will occur in your workplace. These actions include a clear understanding of insubordination, developing robust policies, and the uniform and fair application of the rules throughout the company.

Chido Madzogo
This article was written by Chido a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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