Insubordination is one of those words that commonly appears in fiction to describe a hero fighting against an oppressive regime. However, it’s even more common in the workplace, with unruly employees who refuse to listen to directives or obey orders. SHRM describes it like this:
“Insubordination in the workplace refers to an employee’s intentional refusal to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable orders. Such a refusal would undermine a supervisor’s level of respect and ability to manage and, therefore, is often a reason for disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
In fiction, an insubordinate employee then goes on to be the hero, save the day, and have all be forgiven. In the workplace, this works a bit differently; an insubordinate employee hampers the flow of a business, hurts productivity for an entire team, and ruins morale.
The Difference Between Insubordination and Communication
There’s a certain perspective necessary to identify insubordination correctly. Some managers use it to mean “any time an employee disobeys my orders,” but that’s not a good definition. Indeed, managers are fallible, just like anyone else.
As often as employees may be insubordinate, there are also instances where a manager misidentifies a lack of communication as insubordination. This situation usually occurs when a manager is not very good at managing and tends to take criticism personally. We’ve all been there, likely on both sides of the equation.
AIHR Digital puts it this way:
“The difference between insubordination and pushback generally occurs in how the employee approaches the situation. If an employee ignores manager instruction and does something else, that’s insubordination. However, if the employee contacts the manager and explains why the manager’s guidelines are a bad idea, a discussion ensues, and they ultimately agree, that’s pushback.”
A good workplace is founded on solid communication and transparency. Employees and managers have different perspectives on the same circumstances, based on their different views of the situation and their available information.
An employee can see a ground-level view of how the usual customer, their coworkers, and the general public is likely to react to a given event. When a manager pushes down an order that they know – or believe they know – will damage the business, their coworkers, or their careers, they may be inclined to push back or not follow the order. A manager can then step in and explain why the decision is happening, offer evidence to counteract the employee’s perspective, and convince them that the decision is justified.
Conversely, an employee may leverage their perspective through communication to convince management that their directive is incorrect. It’s always possible that analytics have missed a critical piece of evidence or that whoever issued the directive is doing so out of their self-interest rather than the good of the company. There are countless examples of “vulture capitalism,” wherein a new executive comes in and issues directives to those lower down in the chain to enrich themselves rather than turn the business around.
Insubordination isn’t always bad, but it’s almost always incorrect.
What do we mean? Insubordination is a willful act of ignoring and refusing to follow orders from above. An employee may wish to discuss those orders, refute them, or communicate about them, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
The key is, of course, communication. If the employee refuses to follow the order but takes no further steps to rectify the situation, it’s insubordination. If the employee delays following an order to communicate with management about it, it’s not insubordination. It means they’re a good employee.
Another core characteristic of insubordination is the egregiousness of the refusal to follow an order. The process looks like this:
- The manager gives an employee an order.
- The employee acknowledges the order.
- The employee refuses to follow the order.
Consider a situation wherein a manager gives an employee a task list of 30 items long to complete in a day, and the employee acknowledges it. The employee then only has time to complete 25 of those tasks. The remaining five are left incomplete, but that doesn’t mean the employee was insubordinate; it means they’re over-worked with a task burden higher than their ability to work. Punishing the employee for not completing those tasks will likely result in willful insubordination later, not a productivity improvement.
There are several ways that insubordination – actual insubordination, not simple pushback – is protected.
The first is collective action. If a set of employees, an entire team, or an entire employee roster decides to organize collective action such as a labor strike, it’s illegal to retaliate against them. The willful decision to ignore orders from management is certainly insubordination. Still, a situation rarely reaches the point of a labor strike without some egregious violation on the part of management.
The second situation wherein insubordination is protected if the order given down from above is illegal. If management requests something like “throw out all resumes from minorities” or “spy on customers’ private data,” the order is unlawful. While the administration may feel that the employee not obeying the order is insubordination, the employee is protected.
Similarly, if an employee becomes a whistleblower, they gain protection from OSHA and the government for their status as a whistleblower. They cannot be retaliated against without the company being subject to steep penalties for doing so.
Another relatively common situation within some industries is when an order would put the employee in danger of harm. Harm is usually physical but potentially mental as well. For example, hospital administration ordering nurses to care for COVID-positive patients without proper PPE, or a construction foreman calling a laborer to perform a task without an appropriate hardhat or equipment, are cases where the employee is put in danger due to the direct order of the management. The employee has grounds to refuse based on protecting their health and well-being.
Of course, not all insubordination is protected. If an order is legal, moral, and acceptable, but the employee still refuses to do it, they can be punished freely (within reason).
How to Handle Insubordination in the Workplace
From the perspective of management, insubordination can be a difficult situation to deal with.
On the one hand, an insubordinate employee can destroy morale, ruin productivity, and throw an entire business into disarray.
On the other hand, an employee with legitimate grievances – even if you can’t see them – may be protected, and punishing them can land you and your company in hot water.
On top of that, insubordination by direct reports can feel very personal. They aren’t disobeying the company; they’re disobeying you. That makes you feel bad, as if you’re a villain, especially if your orders are justified or the employee’s refutations are off-base. It’s a difficult situation.
While some insubordination is valid and protected, much of it is not. Dealing with an insubordinate employee in the right way is critical for the success of the business.
First, determine if the situation is genuinely insubordination. When an employee pushes back and ignores your orders, it can be worth your time to take a closer look at the problem. Consider questions such as:
- Does the order put the employee in danger that you don’t see?
- Is the order in violation of a law, regulation, or moral imperative you aren’t familiar with?
- Are there exceptional circumstances that mean the employee would be punished for compliance?
This third one is quite common. If you give an order to accomplish a task, but the employee had done that task before and was punished for doing it, they may refuse because they’re going to be punished one way or the other. This situation can often happen when company policy and direct orders conflict.
Additionally, check communications channels. Has the employee, their superior, or other team members been trying to reach you about the order and how they don’t believe it’s valid? Are they offering communication and pushback? If so, it may not be insubordination so much as an attempt at communication that you’ve missed.
Next, give yourself distance and perspective. While insubordination often feels personal, it might not be. Sure, sometimes employees get grudges against specific managers and push to see how insubordinate they can get while working under someone they don’t respect. Often, though, the employee is not rebelling against you specifically; they’re rebelling against their situation, against company policy, against the industry, or the business as a whole. It’s not personal, and treating it as such can often lead to worse outcomes.
Whatever you do, keep your temper in check. An insubordinate employee can be irritating or enraging, but losing your cool and yelling at them – especially in the workplace or via a communications channel that can be recorded and documented – can devastate your company morale and culture.
Look for the root cause of the problem. Very rarely are employees insubordinate just because they feel like it. There’s almost always a root cause, be it a draconian business policy, conflicting orders from different managers, or an unseen danger behind the instructions.
Maintain documentation. The number one piece of advice for an employee dealing with a bad boss or a bad company policy is to document everything, including orders, policies, and situations that lead to insubordination, to justify it and prove that they’re in the right. It would help if you were doing the same; every order ignored, every disciplinary action taken, and every communication about the subject should all be documented. It’s always possible that the situation escalates to the point of legal action, and having that documentation is critical.
Communicate. Insubordinate employees may, in some cases, not realize they’re doing it. This situation is prevalent in cases of a conflict between company policy and executive order. You must try to address the issue through communication before taking more drastic action like termination.
The best result is explaining to the employee that their behavior is unacceptable, discussing the root cause of the problem, and solving the problem in a satisfactory way to all parties involved. Sometimes insubordination might be a mid-level manager pushing back on behalf of their team. Sometimes it’s simply a case of an impossible situation. Again, we’re all fallible people; an executive directive isn’t always in the right.
Additionally, it’s worthwhile to keep communications in private as much as possible. Making a public scene can both be detrimental to others in the business and cement an employee’s position and make them harder to convince.
Termination is always on the table (except in cases of protected insubordination), but it should be a last resort.
Ensure compliance with company policy. If your company has a “three strikes” policy before termination, you probably shouldn’t fire an insubordinate employee for a single instance of insubordination. This is, again, where documentation comes in. Don’t act outside the bounds of company policy.
It can be worthwhile to take your situation to HR. The HR department is there to manage human resources issues, and that includes conflicts between employees and managers. Typically, the HR team has the company’s interests at the forefront, and they can help you work through the problem in a way that is satisfactory to the business.
Some people aren’t cut out for certain kinds of jobs, roles, or workplaces. Insubordination doesn’t have to be a refusal to carry out an unjust order; it can be a refusal to carry out an order safely, a refusal to do the core task of a job, or deliberate sabotage of the company, team, or product. It’s always critical to dig into any instance of insubordination to discover the underlying cause.
Sometimes, the result is termination. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cutting out an insubordinate element, when justified, is better than allowing them to damage the business. All too often, conflict-averse managers allow insubordination to continue long past the point where it should have resulted in a termination. Tear off the bandage, document the issue, and fire the employee before something worse happens to the business.
Are you having issues with insubordination at your company? Do you have any questions for me? Feel free to leave a comment below – I reply to every comment and would love to hear from you.
Andrew Greenberg’s roots in recruiting date back to 1996. He has experience both on the agency-side and corporate-side of the staffing business, with a focus in the financial services space at companies like Bloomberg and UBS. He also has core experience with information technology staffing, and has worked for major software companies such as SAP Business Objects and IBM/Informix Software. To get in touch with Andrew, you can reach him by email or by phone at (800) 797-6160.