Dealing with Insubordination in the Workplace

Emily BarrLeaders, Management Tips, Performance Culture


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Dealing with Insubordination in the Workplace


Insubordination in the workplace can have many different meanings. Some insubordinate actions are far more severe than others and require swifter action. However, regardless of the nature of the insubordination, it is always important to take charge immediately whenever someone isn’t following the rules, following the protocol put forth in your employee handbook.  


What is Insubordination? 

Looking at the strict dictionary definition of insubordination doesn’t do much to help us understand what it actually is. The straightforward definition describes it simply as a “defiance of authority”, however, most workplaces are not structured in a way where managers expect perfect adherence to management direction at all costs. More often than not, professional employees are given some leeway in how they approach their job, and strong managers recognize that they are the ones who are experts in their job, sometimes even relying on push back to achieve the best possible results.  

Rather than abiding by this general definition, defying authority in the workplace requires three things to be deemed as insubordination: 

  1. The employer gives the order or directive. 
  2. The employee acknowledges the order and understands completely what is expected of them. 
  3. The employee refuses to carry out the order or required task. 


By following this definition, we can avoid miscategorising situations as insubordination when they may simply be products of forgetfulness or unrealistic manager expectations.  


Examples of Insubordinate Behaviour 

Recognizing the behaviours that indicate insubordination is the first step to combatting the issue. Technically speaking, any variation from manager instruction is insubordination. But, in order for it to be perceived and reprimanded as such, there needs to be a willful component to it. Hence, distinguishing mistakes that can be dealt with as common errors from egregious insubordinate behaviour is critical.  

Some employee behaviours can be easily classified as insubordinate, for example: 

  • Intimidation or Harassment – there should be a zero-tolerance policy against intimidation and harassment in your workplace. People need to feel safe and secure at work, and any employee intimidating their colleagues or managers should be immediately investigated. The employee handbook should also state the policy and protocols for dealing with harassment in the workplace. Launch an investigation, make a note in the employee’s files and determine if further disciplinary action is required.  
  • Abusive Language – cursing is not uncommon, and if bad language is used as a normal part of the office “shop talk”, it isn’t necessarily call for insubordination prevention tactics. However, if bad language is being used in an abusive way without provocation, as a result of something the manager said or did, it is considered insubordination. The action should be taken note of, but also be sure to take the heat of the moment into consideration. If it was a one-time outburst, it should be noted in the file. However, it if continues to happen, it becomes ground for insubordination and potential termination. 
  • Confrontational Actions – people in the workplace will almost always have differing opinions, and a subordinate disagreeing with their manager or boss is not insubordinate in nature. However, if they confront and disagree with their boss in front of the rest of the team, it can be considered as such. If someone is confrontational in front of the rest of the manager’s employees, or openly questions their authority, it can lead to poor overall morale. Concerns of that nature should be addressed behind closed doors. Confrontational actions can also include defaming another person, spreading rumours that divide coworkers, and making inappropriate comments regularly. When possible, confrontational actions should be documented in the employee file for disciplinary consideration.  


Each of these insubordinate behaviours demands an immediate and swift response. However, some forms of insubordination are subtler, but can be equally problematic. Some examples of these include: 

  • Sabotage – an employee quietly going behind their manager’s back to perform tasks that were specifically unsupported is less noticeable, but equally as damaging to the manager’s reputation and the overall team morale. 
  • Failure to Perform – this is when an employee is clearly given a duty and intentionally ignores the command, or simply refuses to execute it. If they have some ethical or legal concern about the order, this should be directly addressed with the manager and their concerns should be stated clearly. If the employee’s position isn’t articulated, then a failure to perform warrants a written record as well as the employee excuse to go on file.  
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Dealing with Insubordination in the Workplace 

Despite what some may believe, many employees never set out from the get-go to become insubordinate or difficult in their work environment. Naturally, employees want to keep their jobs, and managers want their employees to carry out instructions. However, there are sometimes legitimate clashes of ideas, personalities, values, and beliefs, which can make this relationship difficult.  


Preventing Insubordination 

The first step to managing insubordination in the workplace is to put into practice several key actions that can prevent it from occurring in the first place.

  1. Set clear boundaries. When employees know your limits from the beginning, they have a clearer sense of what they need to do, and conflict should not arise as frequently. 
  2. Listen to your employees. More often than not, cases of insubordination result from genuine disagreements between employers and employees over what the right course of action is. By having an open and communicative relationship with your employees, and by being receptive when they voice their concerns or counter-argue respectfully, you will have ample opportunity to find a solution before the insubordination can even occur. Additionally, if you insist that your instructions are the right one, you will have a chance to explain the reasoning behind your directive.  
  3. Follow all laws and ethical standards. Should an employee ever feel that their employers were not following proper safety guidelines, there are grounds to bring the case to court or before a labour board should the manager choose to dispute it. In order to avoid the damage that could be caused by a loss in either of these scenarios, you should always be careful to follow the law.  


Handling Insubordination After It Happens 

Even the most skilled manager who follows the guidelines and rules as closely as possible will experience insubordination from time to time. When dealing with an insubordinate employee, there are some best practices to abide by in order to avoid inflaming the issue even further. 

  1. Identify the behaviour immediately. The first step to remedying the issue is to address it directly. Ignoring insubordination, even for a short period of time, will only ever result in more insubordination. Even if the case is mild, simply letting it go sets a standard in the workplace that your instructions are not rules, but just suggestions. That is not to say you need to begin micro-managing your employees’ every move. You do not need to provide instructions for everything, and you don’t need to have control over every aspect of your employees’ workdays. Rather, this simply means that when you have given explicit instructions, and an employee doesn’t follow them, point it out directly and immediately. 
  2. Issue consequences. The consequences you dole out will evidently vary depending on the circumstances. For example, if an employee locks the doors five minutes after they were supposed to, a quick reminder should suffice. Should the behaviour continue, a formal warning can follow that adheres to your company’s disciplinary guidelines. As already discussed, if a behavior is egregious, immediate punishment is in order. For example, if an employee lies to a customer and tells them the opposite of what you said, a write-up or suspension would be appropriate. 
  3. Document everything. Managers often fall into the habit of not recording small infractions, choosing instead to wait until there is serious rebellion before acting. However, any termination will need a reliable paper trail, and this documentation can also work to protect you in court in case of a dispute. Document the insubordinate behaviour, no matter how mild it is, ask witnesses for statements, and keep everything in the proper file. 
  4. Be fair. No manager can be entirely objective when it comes to managing their workforce. At the end of the day, they are human, and will naturally make mistakes. However, when it comes to insubordination and disciplinary action against it, there needs to be one single standard. Before you discipline your employees, exercise fairness and objectivity.  How you go about managing insubordination is critical to keeping employee morale high and in building up employee confidence.  


In Summary 

Insubordination is, at its core, unavoidable. Regardless of how many steps you take to prevent it, no manager is entirely immune to the possibility of an employee acting against their directives. There are, however things a manager can do to prevent insubordination as much as possible. Setting clear boundaries, and listening to your employees when there are disagreements, are excellent steps in the right direction. And, if it becomes too late for prevention, adequate action is essential – identify the behaviour, issue the consequences, document everything, and above all, be fair.  


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