What Is Insubordination?

Insubordination is the act of willfully ignoring, disobeying, or refusing to follow direction from an authority figure or group. It is a term more commonly used within the military, but one that is also applicable to the workplace, where it involves an employee refusing to follow directions from their manager, another superior, or from the organization as a whole.

Insubordination is a type of misconduct that can have far-reaching effects within an organization. It can damage the overall functioning of the organization, undermine an authority figure’s credibility, or damage morale and productivity. Insubordination is generally perceived to be a serious offense, and is often grounds for disciplinary action, including discharge from military service or a letter of termination from an employer.

What Are Examples of Insubordination?

Specific examples of insubordination will be unique to the individual or organization where they occur. However, here are some common examples of behaviors and actions that could be classified as insubordination:

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It’s important to distinguish insubordination from other problematic behaviors like harassment or absenteeism. However, insubordination is often accompanied by other forms of misconduct.

What Is Considered Insubordination at Work?

Officially, insubordination at work has occurred when the following three factors have taken place, according to SHRM:

  1. An employer makes a lawful and reasonable request of an individual employee or employees as a whole.
  2. The employee receives the order.
  3. The employee refuses to accept, follow, or carry out the order.

The direction can be verbal, written, or defined as part of an employee’s job description. It can be passed down from a supervisor to their direct reports, from the business owner or from another authority figure. The employee’s receipt of the direction does not require a formal acknowledgement; it can be as informal as being present in a meeting or reading an email containing the instruction.

The key differentiator between insubordination and other types of misconduct is the employee’s willful intent to defy an order. They can do this by verbally saying they will not complete the order, ignoring the order (also called a nonverbal refusal), or taking an unreasonable amount of time to complete the order.

It is not insubordination if the employee misunderstands instructions, does not receive the direction, or is otherwise unable to complete a task because of a misunderstanding or obstruction. Additionally, if an employee refuses to carry out an action that is illegal, unethical, or unsafe, it is not considered insubordination.

What Are the Grounds for Insubordination?

The specific grounds for insubordination can vary depending on the unique circumstances and the policies and procedures of an organization. As described above, insubordination requires a clearly communicated order from the employer and an employee’s willful actions to undermine or refuse to follow the order. The grounds of insubordination for dismissal typically require an egregious act of insubordination or repeated acts that have been documented and culminate in eventual termination.

What Is the Difference Between Insubordination and Misconduct?

Insubordination is a specific type of misconduct that involves disobedience or refusal to follow orders from a superior. Misconduct is a broader term that refers to behavior considered inappropriate or wrong within a particular context. Misconduct can take many forms and include a wide range of behaviors, such as insubordination, theft, harassment, fraud, or violation of company policies or local and federal laws.