Insubordination At Work: Simple Understanding With Examples (2021)

  1. What Is Insubordination
  2. What is considered insubordination at a workplace
  3. Insubordination Examples
  4. Insubordination Interventions
  5. How to handle insubordination after it happens

1. What Is Insubordination

The straightforward dictionary definition of ‘insubordination’ is the refusal to obey someone who is in a higher position and has the authority to give orders or instructions. It is an act of defiance against authority.

In general, there are 3 factors in determining insubordination at work:

  1. The employer gives a task to the employee.
  2. The employee acknowledges the instruction.
  3. The employee refuses to carry out the task.

2. What is considered insubordination at a workplace

Insubordination at the workplace can be in 3 different ways:

  1. Work Refusal: a direct refusal to perform a reasonable, legal, and ethical directive from an employer or supervisor when such directive has been clearly understood or acknowledged by the employee.
  2. Not performing Task: The employee does not carry out their duty assigned to them, but they do not directly refuse to perform the task, despite clearly understanding or acknowledging the task,
  3. Performing tasks unreasonably slow: the employee would take an extraordinarily unreasonable amount of time to do what you’ve asked them to do so that they would actually be not doing the task assigned to them.

An employee’s refusal to carry out a directive need not necessarily be verbal. A non-verbal refusal or an unreasonable delay in finishing the work also constitutes to be insubordination.

3. Insubordination Examples

Below mentioned are a few instances of insubordination

  1. The employer instructs the employee to appear at a meeting in the office in person to discuss certain performance issues. But the employee either refuses or, instead of appearing for the meeting, goes to some other site.
  2. The employer provides clear instruction to the employee to file the return of the client by the end of the day. The employee does not perform the task despite no reasonable basis for not doing so.
  3. The job description of an employee clearly states that the employee shall be responsible for analyzing and preparing the report. But the employee, later on, refuses to prepare the report and takes on another assignment.

4. Insubordination Interventions

The employer must try to prevent in-subordination from happening. This may be achieved by keeping in mind the following points.

  1. Establish boundaries
    If the boundaries and limitations are communicated to the employees clearly at the beginning, they know what is expected from them, and conflict doesn’t arise as often. So, let the employee what is acceptable and do not leave any room for doubt or misunderstanding.
  2. Develop company policies on Insubordination
    The policy must include the definition of insubordination, a list of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the organization, and consequences of their actions.
  3. Maintain Professionalism
    It is important to develop and maintain a professional environment in the workplace from the start. This would help to keep the behavior of the employees in check. Also, it would provide a reminder to the employees about what behavior is expected of them.
  4. Keep the communication channels open.
    Regular communication would help identify minor problems and solve them by discussing them with the employees before they turn into insubordination instances.
  5. Solid grounds for termination
    The employer must determine and communicate the basis for termination due to insubordination.

5. How to handle insubordination after it happens

There are various things to be considered for dealing with in-subordination.

  1. Remain, Professional,
    Even if an employee openly mocks you or your business, it is essential to maintain professionalism and not retaliate similarly. You must keep a level head and speak to the employee calmly.
  2. Address the issue correctly.
    You may note the points to be discussed beforehand so that the discussion can be done in an orderly fashion, and it is easier to make it clear to the employee the reason behind the action taken.
  3. Be fair and give an opportunity of being heard.
    It is very important to consider the employee’s point of view before making a decision. They may have genuine reasons for their such behavior, which shall be required to be addressed. Being fair is important to keep the employee morale high.
  4. Officially document the incident.
    This includes a factual description of the incident, along with an improvement plan. Even small infractions must be recorded. A paperwork trail is necessary for termination. This will also help when you are stuck with the question ‘how to prove insubordination’ and will protect you in court also. The employee or a witness may be asked to sign it. Also, sign it yourself.

A manager’s tolerance level for disobedience will depend on the seriousness of the situation and whether the behavior is repeated by the employee. A refusal to perform a task may be accepted for one time, while repeated refusals will lead to punishment.


Insubordination at the workplace may be prevented to a great extent by adhering to the points mentioned above. However, it can still not be totally avoided. Most instances of insubordination result from a non-physical threat. It is wise to try to correct the employee’s behavior privately instead of terminating him. If the manager feels that there is a pattern of willful disobedience, he/she should document it and report it to his/her own superior.

Are you interested in learning more about Analytics in Workforce Management? Take a look at our People Analytics and Digital HR program, in collaboration with IIM Indore. This is a 3-month long program with instructor-led sessions by IIM-I faculty.


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