Properly Handling Employee Insubordination Requires Having a Policy in Place

Filed under Managing the Workplace. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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The proper response to employee insubordination can range from disciplinary action to termination. A succinct policy can assist employers in appropriately dealing with insubordination issues.

If you have employees, you should develop a policy for dealing with insubordination. Insubordination occurs when an employee willfully disobeys or disregards a superior's legitimate directive. Abusive language by employees toward supervisors and others can also be considered insubordination.

The reasons for not tolerating insubordination are obvious — employees need to know that you, as the employer, are calling the shots. Insubordination is clearly not acceptable in an employment relationship, and you don't need to have a policy on it in order to discipline or fire someone for insubordination. However, a specific rule that insubordination will not be tolerated can be useful if you ever need to defend your actions in court.

If you are ever accused of discriminatory conduct because of your treatment of an allegedly insubordinate employee, or if you want to challenge payment of unemployment benefits to a worker fired for insubordination, you will generally have to show that:

  • a direct order was issued to an employee
  • the employee received and understood the order
  • the employee refused to obey the order through an explicit statement of refusal or through nonperformance

In cases of abusive language, consider the context in which the incident occurred. An employee is more likely to be found to have engaged in insubordination if the abusive language:

  • was not provoked by the supervisor
  • was spoken in the presence of other employees or customers
  • was not an example of shop talk in the workplace

If you encounter a situation where you think an employee is being insubordinate, before you react by punishing the employee, ask yourself the following questions to make sure that discipline is the appropriate action to take:

  • Assess how the order was issued. The best way to communicate an order is a clearly written memo or order that explains who should do what, when it should be done, where they should do it, and how they should do it. If orders are being communicated orally, make sure the employee understands what you want.
    • Was the directive issued orally?
    • Was it issued face-to-face?
    • Was the directive a written memorandum?
    • Who gave the order?
  • Assess the employee's understanding of the order.
    • Was the directive clear?
    • Was the employee aware of the objectives of and duties imposed by the directive?
    • Did the employee directly refuse the order or circumvent it?
    • Was the refusal intentional?
    • What would have constituted reasonable compliance with the order?
  • Could other workplace factors have influenced the employee's actions? It could be that, due to some factors, the employee did not willfully intend to disobey.
    • Was the behavior common in the workplace?
    • Was the conduct in any way provoked by a supervisor or coworker?
    • Did the employee exhibit a pattern of insubordinate conduct?
    • Has the employee been told what behavior is unacceptable?
    • Were employees informed of policy?
    • Have you consistently enforced the policy?
    • Was the order a proper exercise of management authority?
  • Assess the appropriateness of the order. Maybe the employee had a good reason for not obeying the order. The law protects employees who are fired or disciplined for not obeying orders that are in violation of the law.
    • Was the employee's refusal to obey based upon legal rights?
    • Did the order require the employee to perform unsafe or illegal duties?
    • Were the rules or directives related to the efficient and safe operation of the business?
  • Assess the impact of the insubordinate conduct.
    • Did it disrupt workflow or harm the business?
    • Did it pose a safety hazard to the employee or coworkers?
    • Did it affect the morale of other employees?
    • Was it unacceptable conduct because of the employee's skills or professional level?
    • Could the conduct be corrected easily?

Assuming you are dealing with insubordination, how should you handle the situation?

Handling an Insubordinate Worker

Your knee-jerk reaction to an insubordinate employee may be to lose your temper, to become abusive in return, or to terminate the employee immediately. While it's hard to control your emotions during a stressful situation like this, you must. Termination may, in fact, be the appropriate response to an insubordinate employee, but don't fire the employee on the spot. If termination is appropriate, it will still be clearly appropriate after you've cooled off. Being abusive in return is never appropriate.

Although termination may be considered in the most serious situations, counseling or a progressive step discipline program is probably the most appropriate vehicle for disciplining an insubordinate employee. Your discipline policy should give you room to maneuver, so you can consider the following:

  • Does an employee's past record indicate an insubordinate attitude? If not, perhaps a warning should be used the first time. If the employee has a history of this kind of behavior, stricter sanctions should be considered.
  • Is the discipline appropriate and related to the severity of the conduct? If the conduct is serious, a light or token punishment will not deter the employee — and other employees — from exhibiting this kind of behavior. On the other hand, if an employee is punished severely for a minor infraction, the purpose of the discipline could backfire and make the employee's attitude and morale even worse.

Creating an Insubordination Policy

While some kinds of policies allow for many variations, insubordination policies can be shorter, to the point, and more generic.

Here's an example of an insubordination rule that you can use for your business:

Example

"Employees are required to obey company directives issued by their supervisor or manager. A refusal to obey a supervisor's order or a lack of respect directed toward that supervisor will subject that employee to the company's progressive step discipline program."

Keeping an insubordination policy generic allows it to have wider applicability for a variety of workplace issues that may arise.

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