Insubordination can be one of the toughest things for a human resources professional to handle. Unlike other rule breaking, which can sometimes wind up being a misunderstanding, insubordination is the intentional refusal to perform a job duty or order from a supervisor or manager.
This blatant refusal can lead to a bunch of different problems if not handled swiftly and properly.
So what is insubordination? What actions are considered insubordinate, and what can managers, HR leaders, and other supervisors do about it?
Let's take a closer look, starting at the beginning.
What Is Insubordination?
Insubordination is a direct refusal to perform an ethical and reasonable action that was requested by a manager.
That middle part is important. The requested action must be logical, ethical, and reasonable to be counted as insubordination if not carried out. The employee must also fully understand the request and still refuse to do it.
For example, if you have an employee that is responsible for, say, cleaning the offices and you ask them to wipe down the desks, if they refuse to carry about that action it is insubordination because it is within their job duties to do so and they are blatantly refusing.
Of course, it gets a bit tricky if they have a really good reason not to perform the task. Normally, if this is the case, they will tell the manager why they don't want to wipe down the desks instead of simply refusing the task.
This is a good time to look into some common misconceptions.
Insubordination, Insolence, and Misconduct: Know the Difference
Insubordination is pretty easy to understand: it's the outright refusal to obey orders from a supervisor or manager even though the order was reasonable and within their job duties.
Despite this, people get insubordination confused with other rule violations, such as insolence and misconduct. This is largely because insubordination can lead to insolence and misconduct if the employee keeps being insubordinate.
Insolence, as a refresher, is when an employee is disrespectful to a manager or supervisor by swearing at them, making fun of them, mocking them, or things of that nature. It's basically undermining their authority with inappropriate behavior.
Misconduct is even easier to grasp because it is when rule breaking violates bigger rules, such as a law, a harassment policy, or is unethical in general. Basically, misconduct is a step up from the other two and needs disciplinary action (or legal action sometimes) as quickly as possible. Always make sure that you have a code of conduct at your organization that goes over what is and what isn't misconduct.
As you can see, insubordination is really just an understood refusal to follow orders. The employee must know what is being asked and understand the task completely but still refuse to do it.
And while that seems simple, it helps by knowing what to look for to see if you have an insubordinate employee on your hands.
Insubordination: What to Look For
In order to pinpoint insubordination, you first have to know what you're looking for.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), insubordination has three factors, which you'll recognize from above.
- An order is given by a manager
- The employee who has been given the order acknowledges and understands the order
- The employee refuses to perform the order
Here's more from SHRM to provide even greater clarity:
"The order itself may take the form of a verbal directive, written instructions, the duties as described in a job description and even an implied set of duties where no formal job description exists," they write.
"Employee acknowledgments can be verbal, nonverbal (nodding) or even the acceptance of a job offer. An employee's unwillingness to carry out a directive can manifest itself as a verbal refusal, a nonverbal refusal or an unreasonable delay in completing the work."
They go on to say that being verbally disrespectful doesn't qualify as insubordination at this stage, though that may fall into the insolence category. Instead, the actual refusal is what is important to look at.
Now, it's important that the given order isn't something unethical or potentially harmful. For example, if you have an employee to stand a rickety ladder to change a light bulb, the employee may blatantly refuse because it is unsafe. This would not constitute insubordination because you have asked the employee to do something dangerous.
Ethics can be an even harder area for HR to deal with because a manager could give a command to do something shady and the employee refuse because it is unethical. In these types of situations, HR needs to step in and sort the matter out to see if the employee is being insubordinate or the manager is being unethical in their practices.
When Is It Not Insubordination?
As an HR leader, it's important to thoroughly examine insubordination claims as a third party investigator that isn't playing one side. For example, you shouldn't simply believe the manager because they are the manager. You need check your bias as much as possible.
This means that you also have to know when it isn't insubordination and when the employee isn't in the wrong. This is a pretty easy process.
Insubordination can only occur when the employee disobeys a request that is reasonable, ethical, and part of their normal job duties.
In other words, the request cannot be illegal or dangerous, like we mentioned above.
Also, insubordination is not the same as debate or disagreement. For example, if someone doesn't believe that the task at hand will help the business, you want them to say so. Employees often times care about the business they work for and do not want to see it fail because of a move that they know - or believe - is wrong.
So, say you have an employee who doesn't like performing a task that they believe isn't impactful. They bring this up to their manager, making a strong case for why it's not a good use of time. The manager may feel like this is insubordination because the employee is pushing back against an order.
This isn't insubordination, yet.
A healthy debate is one thing. However, it does become insubordination if the employee flatly refuses to do the task after the debate or does things to intentionally make the task fail.
Another example: say that an employee has been tasked with cleaning up a loading dock. They argue that this is not a good idea because the dock is going to be dirty again when the next truck arrives. After pleading their case, the manager still wants them to do it.
If the employee simply doesn't do it and refuses the task, you have a clear insubordination claim. The employee may also do other actions that intentionally mess up the task, too. In this case, they may clean the dock but move all of the pallets in front of the loading bay or cause a bigger mess. This derails other people from performing their jobs and is a sign of insubordination because they basically undermined the order.
As you can see, like with any workplace rule violation, there is some nuances that HR and managers need to be aware of when it comes to insubordination.
Here's how to handle it, though, if you know for a fact that insubordination occurred:
How to Handle Insubordination
Okay, so you have made sure that the order was understood by the employee, that it is an ethical and safe order, but the employee outright refuses to do it. This is a clear case of insubordination. Now what?
Since insubordination typically happens to managers - not HR leaders - the first step is to make sure you have policies on paper that address how management should respond if someone is insubordinate.
Right after the infraction, the manager should stay as professional as possible and explain the task again if the employee seems confused. If the employee is being disrespectful and clearly understanding the task at hand, professionalism is key for the manager.
The manager cannot give in to the temptation to be disrespectful when confronted with insubordination. They must keep their cool under pressure. If need be, they can walk away from the interaction to cool down, though they should explain that not following the order is insubordination and a rule violation.
By explaining that not following the order is, in fact, insubordination, the manager is giving the employee a second chance before moving the situation to HR.
Say that that still doesn't work, now it's in HR's hands. HR needs to look into the issue and try to determine what happened. This can be easy or hard depending on the people involved and what insubordinate behavior occurred.
HR should first examine the order to see if it is ethical, safe, and logical. If that all checks out, it's time to look at the situation from the eyes of the employee to see why they are refusing to carry it out.
It's very common in these situations to find out that insubordination was caused by a personality conflict or a misunderstanding, both of which can be revolved (typically). While investigating, HR should - within reason - give the employee the benefit of the doubt and try to put themselves in the employee's shoes.
If after all of that it is still clearly insubordination (especially if there is insolence peppered in as well), it's time for HR to act according to their disciplinary policy.
Disciplinary Action and Insubordination
How you handle insubordination largely depends on your employee handbook and code of conduct. These rules can vary quite differently from organization to organization.
In short, though, it's reasonable to assume that insubordination will follow the same path as any rule breaking behavior. After the first infraction, the employee is warned verbally. After the second, it becomes a written warning. And, finally, after the third, the employee is either suspended or fired from the organization.
Why so many steps?
Well, in a perfect world, insubordination will stop after the first warning, like many rule violations. Also, the employee could have a strong reason for insubordination that managers and HR leaders didn't pick up on. By having a three strike policy, HR and management can create a paper trail of evidence that shows that the employee has been insubordinate over the long run, keeping the organization out of legal trouble if the matter should escalate that far.
This process is important. You need to make sure that you are following your official disciplinary policy to ensure that, if it comes down to it, you have the proof you need to show that the employee has been insubordinate or causing other problems.
As we mentioned up top, if you do not take any action, insubordination can easily turn to insolence and misconduct, which are bigger issues to deal with.
With all that said, there are things you need to consider before action is taken, too, especially when dealing with insolence, which can often times pop up at the same time insubordination happens.
For example, if the person curses or says something wrong in the moment of the infraction, you need to pay close attention to how your company's culture plays into that action.
"In addition, when addressing insolent or insubordinate behavior, the employer should consider the culture or circumstances in which an incident took place," SHRM writes.
"For example, if cursing is common "shop talk" in the workplace, the employer would need to consider whether the language used by the employee was unusual enough to be considered abusive."
Also, if you are having trouble understanding the full brunt of the infraction and what disciplinary actions to use, always double check with your legal team to ensure that you are following all local, state, and federal laws. Terminating employees can be a daunting process. Make sure you have all of your bases covered.
When Insubordination Goes Unchecked
We've covered a lot about how to spot insubordination and what to do about it, but what would happen if it goes unchecked and the employee continues to be insubordinate?
In short, bigger problems are going to start to pop up, especially when it comes to the effectiveness of your management team.
By allowing insubordinate employees to get away with not following direct orders, managers can quickly lose their ability to manage. After all, if one person starts to get away with not doing their job, what's stopping others from becoming insubordinate, too?
If your managers cannot manage, it stands to reason that your bottom line will suffer because work isn't getting done. Insubordination is a clear sign of this and must be handled quickly.
Besides the impact insubordination has on management, it can lead to more rule breaking, too. As we mentioned, insubordination can go hand-in-hand with insolence and misconduct, spreading these actions throughout the team or company at large.
The last thing you want is for your company culture to go down the drain because of insubordination and other infractions that can erode your workplace from the inside. By not having strict rules in place, harassment claims and things of that nature can spring up more often.
In other words, you can't let things get out of control.
How to Offboard a Problematic Employee
If all else has failed and the insubordinate employee is still causing trouble at your organization, you may have to take a bigger action, such as terminating the employee.
Firing someone is never an easy task for anyone, but sometimes it's a vital step to ensure that the workplace runs smoothly without constant interruption from a problematic employee.
So how should you handle this when it comes to insubordination?
In short, just like you would handle any other firing or termination. In fact, terminating an employee is a lot like laying an employee off (except for the benefits extended).
Basically, there are a few tips that will make a firing easier to manage. First, you should always set a termination meeting at the end of the work day. This helps keep everything in check and doesn't derail the entire day for other staff members.
Just like a layoff meeting, you need to get right to the point once the person is called into the office. Don't try to make small talk. Now isn't the time to chit-chat about the weather or the recent football game.
When the employee enters the office, tell them that you have bad news: their employment has been terminated. Explain to them why this is. (If you've done your due diligence, you will have paperwork to back up your reasoning). In this case, multiple counts of insubordination.
Tell them that you have spoken to them numerous times about the issue and it hasn't changed.
Also, just like a layoff meeting, you need to give the employee a moment to respond (within reason). Allow them to say what they need to say without letting the meeting unravel. There will be strong emotions on both sides here - keep them in check.
Once that is over, explain all of the necessary details. How they will get their final pay. What will happen with their projects, etc.
Dick Grote, a management consultant based in Dallas, wrote a very simple, yet effective list of things to remember when terminating an employee for The Harvard Business Review. He writes:
- "Don’t say, “I understand how you feel.” You don’t.
- Don’t say, “I know that this hurts right now but later on you’ll realize that this is the best thing that could have happened.” It isn’t. It is a very bad thing.
- Avoid justifications (“You should have known”).
- Keep a box of Kleenex available.
- Survival is a strong instinct — give it time to work.
- Remember the Golden Rule."
After all of this, you need to wrap it up quickly, walk the employee over to get their belongings, and see that they leave the building.
Now, the only thing we didn't touch on is benefits. When it comes to a termination for insubordination, benefits are typically not extended to the person being let go.
This is because a firing is a 'voluntary termination' because the person was let go based on an action that they have taken (usually multiple actions). Unlike a layoff where the employee is let go because of actions outside of their control, a firing is - on paper - the same as them quitting.
So, this typically means the employer will not offer a severance package or outplacement services, though some may. It really depends on your organization and how your process works. If you want to provide severance and outplacement, you can read both of our guides here and here.
Insubordination: A Recap
Insubordination is when an employee blatantly refuses to follow a logical order from a manager. To be considered actual insubordination, the employee must fully understand the order and the order must not be unethical or dangerous. In other words, it's a typical job duty that the employee is simply refusing to do for whatever reason.
When claims of insubordination are made, HR has to look into the issue as a third-party investigator to examine whether or not the employee fully understands the order and to try to get to the bottom of why they are refusing to do the task.
If the matter cannot be resolved by speaking with the employee and manager, HR should document the infraction. Typically, after a certain amount of insubordination claims, the employee will undergo disciplinary action. This usually means that they will first be warned verbally, then in a written warning, then a suspension or firing, depending on a variety of variables.
Insubordination can often times lead to insolence and misconduct. However, both of these issues are different than insubordination and should be treated accordingly. It is important to stop insubordination before it can escalate to insolent behavior or misconduct. Both of these terms should be clearly defined in your code of conduct.
If you need to terminate employment because of insubordination, you should have a properly planned out firing policy that includes a letter, a meeting, and whether or not the employee will receive any benefits.
In the end, insubordination should be thoroughly investigated and - if it truly is insubordinate behavior - stopped before things get out of hand and your managers lose control over their staff, which can lead to a drop in productivity, a tarnishing of employer brand, and create a hostile work environment.