Insubordination in the Workplace

Having an understanding of what constitutes insubordination in the workplace and ways to address this issue helps leaders maintain a positive, effective, and productive working environment.

Instances of insubordination can cause conflicts among employees in the workplace.

We will give a detailed discussion on insubordination in the workplace, including examples and different tips you can use to resolve such conflicts with employees.

Table of Contents

Meaning of Insubordination in the workplace

Insubordination is a direct or indirect refusal or avoidance to perform a legal, ethical, and reasonable directive from a manager or supervisor when the directive has been clearly understood or acknowledged.

They are most often confused with misconduct or insolence. Insolence occurs when an employee mocks, insults, disrespects, or shows similar inappropriate behavior toward a manager or supervisor. Misconduct occurs when employee behavior is criminal, harassing, or unethical.

However, insubordination is considered as disobedience or purpose refusal to do a thing.

Elements to insubordination

Having looked at what insubordination in the workplace is, we will go ahead to break it down 

  • A clear reasonable and lawful order is given or made
  • The order is given by a person in high authority, and
  • The order is disobeyed intentionally by an employee.


Examples of Insubordination

  1. Disrespecting authority figures

Employees can demonstrate insubordination by openly disrespecting office authority figures. This can be seen when an employee irritates their managers by yelling at them or using vulgar language toward them. this also involves disagreeing with their manager’s decisions or orders in front of colleagues, eventually undermining the manager’s authority.

Less overt disrespectful behaviors like employees rolling their eyes at their boss or a higher authority figure when they provide orders or make decisions can be identified by the organization as insubordination. 

  1. Sabotaging team or organizational activities

 According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Sabotage is defined as the “destruction of an employer’s property (such as tools or materials) or the hindering of manufacturing by discontented workers”.

It involves situations in which an individual can perform actions with the intent of trying to weaken or destroy something.

In the workplace, this could include actions taken against a specific project, initiative, or goal. Employees who refuse to complete project-related tasks may be committing sabotage and insubordination.

For instance, if an employee purposely refuses to deliver a report by the specified deadline, the entire team may be unable to present their project to their client. This failure may have negative consequences for the client’s relationship and reputation with the company.

Similarly, they may carry out tasks that their manager has specifically instructed them not to do because they are detrimental to the plan or team in some way.  

  1.  Refusing to complete a task

As mentioned previously, refusal to perform a task ordered by an authority within their scope of work is an example of insubordination.   

An employee’s job description, for example, might include cleaning up the café chairs at the end of the day. If they are asked to do something, and they ignore or refuse, the boss can refer to it as insubordination.

However, depending on the circumstances, employees can still refuse to perform duties but only if the employee has expressed concerns about cleaning the tables or explained why they couldn’t do it that day, they might be able to reach an agreement with their manager.

Likewise, if the boss requested that the barista engages in unethical or illegal behavior, they could refuse without being considered insubordinate.

  1. Failing to show up for work

When employees begin a new job, they must typically agree to specific terms of employment, such as a work schedule. These rules require the employer to be present at work at a specific time and days, for example, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Individuals who refuse to arrive at work during their required or assigned work schedules are said to contribute to insubordination in the workplace.

  1.  Leaving early without notice

This involves an employee’s failure to seek permission to take leave from work. 

As mentioned previously, an agreement is made on the work schedule.  The act of disobeying these rules (work schedule) constitutes insubordination. 

For example, if an employee is scheduled to end their shift at 6 p.m. but decides to leave at 3 p.m. without notifying their employer or seeking relevant permission.

If permission is taken and denied, the act of ignoring such order or responding negatively is considered insubordination. 

This can be avoided if a valid reason is given and confirmed to be extremely important.  

Other examples may include:

  • An employee who refuses to attend a medical examination. 

How to Manage Insubordination in the workplace

Identify improper behaviors: 

It is important to identify and also address insubordinate behaviors immediately after they occur. This recognition will make it clear to other employees that such action is improper.

Leaving room for doubt or misunderstanding is not the best. For instance, if an employee misbehaves and such action is not addressed, such action can be repeated by another. Therefore it is important to the first state 

Remain calm:

Insubordinate behavior can be intimidating and disrespectful. So do not be tempted to react in the same way. Maintain your cool.

If things become heated, step away from the situation and resume the interaction once all parties have managed to regain their calmness.

Maintaining a calm environment when organizing a conflict resolution interaction can make all parties involved feel more comfortable.

Take the time to listen to all parties before speaking or responding, as this will put them at ease rather than making them defensive about their involvement in the dispute.

Stay objective: 

Being objective is an important part of conflict resolution because it requires paying attention to each party’s point of view and attempting to avoid assigning blame.

Allow all parties to express themselves during the meeting and ensure that everyone feels heard. It is easier to maintain respectful conversations and relationships when everyone feels heard.

If possible, schedule a meeting with a third-party Human Resource representative immediately following the incident. Determine whether the issue can be resolved or if it was simply a misunderstanding by trying to understand what led to the employee’s behavior.

Make Documentation of the incidents: 

In addition to addressing every incident of insubordination or conflicts, minor incidents can be documented as they occur.

Take notes on the incidents, including the parties involved, the locations, and the dates.

You can also collect evidence, such as assertions from coworkers or other employees who witnessed the incidents.

Develop an action plan: 

It is important to develop an action plan after a conflict has been resolved. This will help the parties involved to maintain a good relationship and stay on track even after the conflict.

Involve third parties if necessary 

Depending on the circumstances, it is useful to involve the assistance of a third party, such as a member of your organization’s human resources department. 

These individuals, for example, can act as objective mediators in conflicts involving you and another employee.

Establish boundaries.

This involves Implementing preventative measures. When hiring new employees, ensure to set boundaries so that they understand what is expected of them and how to conduct themselves around senior executives and other coworkers.

Creating boundaries when they did not exist previously can be difficult, especially when working with colleagues who have established patterns, therefore structure and communication will be beneficial.

Develop clear company policies on insubordination. Make sure your company policy defines insubordination and outlines the consequences. Ensure that every employee understands what insubordination is and what the consequences are.

Effects of workplace insubordination?

Refusal to Carry out or complete required duties will have a significantly negative effect on the workplace. 

These negative effects can cost the workplace money and time.

The list below explains the consequences of insubordination in the workplace.

  • Lower production rates

A workplace with employees who deliberately refuse to perform their duties or responsibility will have a very low productivity level.

Insubordinations that are left unchecked may result in a high turnover rate or an expensive termination.

  • Loss of clients

Employees who do not cooperate with the workplace may deliver poor customer service, which can likely drive away loyal customers.

A client who has had a negative experience with your company is less likely to recommend them, costing you potential customers.

  • An unhealthy workplace

An insubordinate employee is likely not to collaborate or grow as a team.

This act of disobedience can after other coworkers thereby rendering them miserable. 

Let’s see an instance where a member of a team refuses to complete a task required to make a team work successful; other team members will need to put in additional work which will be quite stressful.

  • Brand damage

An uncooperative employee may spread rumors, reveal private information, or make damaging statements about your company. 

Repairing one’s reputation can be difficult, particularly when negative comments or reviews are posted on platforms that cannot be removed.

  • Workplace conflict

Insubordinate employees are likely to instigate conflict in the workplace. 

When a staff is not cooperative to ensure the achievement of the organization’s goals, this could create an imbalance thereby causing anger and anxiety among workers.


Insubordination in the workplace is something that should be consciously avoided or prevented. Looking at its effects on an organization, no one wants an unhealthy workspace that settles disputes every week or month.

Workplaces can thereby set standards for insubordination making it clear to all employees what behaviors are appropriate and unacceptable.

Emphasis is being made on “making it clear”. This will guide your company on how to avoid and take situations of insubordination in the workplace.

About The Author