How to Deal with Insubordinate Employees

Insubordination is a refusal to comply with an order, request, or instruction. It can range from passive resistance to blatant defiance. Another good definition of insubordination is the unwillingness or refusal to obey authority or rules imposed on them.

Insubordinate employees pose a big challenge for any manager or leader and can turn the workplace atmosphere into a nightmare. These people are not compliant with the company’s policies, rules, or procedures. It can be a stressful and challenging situation for many managers to decide what steps to take to hold the insubordinate employees accountable, and regain control of their authority and maintain a productive workplace environment.

What is Insubordination?

Insubordination is a refusal to comply with a justifiable order, request, or instruction from a person in a position of authority. It can range from passive resistance to blatant defiance.

Another good definition of insubordination is someone who is unwilling or refusing to obey authority or rules imposed on them. This could be refusing reasonable, legitimate and lawful orders or instructions from a superior or a leader.

An insubordinate employee is someone who deliberately disobeys the authority of their manager or supervisor. This person doesn’t follow legitimate instructions and blatantly refuses to do what their boss wants them to do.

Most insubordinate employees might have an inflated sense of their worth and capability and can be disrespectful in the way they speak with others. They can even use profanity when talking with their boss.

There are many different personalities in the workplace. Some people have a more aggressive or passive demeanor. Some employees may not be happy with their job and choose to act out in many ways.

They might procrastinate, gossip, show up late for work, or do little things like overstaying on breaks. If these behaviors continue unchecked, an employee can become insubordinate and create problems for everybody.

Insubordination behavior gets worse when you allow it to continue, so if an employee acts like this, you should deal with them immediately to avoid serious problems down the line.

How to Deal with Insubordinate Employee?

The first thing that you need to know is the difference between a disrespectful and an insubordinate employee.

A disrespectful person doesn’t have respect for themselves, their boss, or colleagues. An insubordinate employee has some form of defiance towards authority in general.

For example, they might talk back to their supervisor and be rude when they don’t get what they want right away.

Try to understand the difference between the two. Because if you are dealing with an insubordinate employee, then your goal will be different than if it was just a disrespectful one.

If you have insubordinate employees in your team, here are the most effective ways of dealing with an insubordinate employee:

1. Talk to the Employee as Soon as Possible

Talking with an insubordinate employee is one of the most challenging tasks for a boss or manager. It’s not something they want to do, but they must do it.

You can’t just let them continue their bad behavior and expect things will get better. The first step you need to take is identifying what caused the insubordination in the first place and then work on that problem.

If your workplace doesn’t have a clear policy on insubordination, now would be the time to create one so everyone knows how to handle this situation in the future.

2. Ask them Questions and Listen Carefully

In a meeting with an insubordinate, it is best to take the time to listen carefully without interrupting. Listening will help you better understand what the person is saying.

You’ll want to have all the information necessary for your response, and you might even need to take time to compose your thoughts. It will also give your employee who is speaking some space and allow them the opportunity to continue.

Sometimes employees have a differing opinion from their boss, and during an argument, it may seem like they are insubordinate.

However, when you take time to listen carefully before responding to your employee, there will be a clear understanding of what is happening and how best to handle the situation.

Set the meeting expectations upfront and then ask questions if needed. But be sure not to overstep your boundaries by telling them what’s wrong with what they say. Let them know that you are listening and understanding even if you disagree with them.

Related article: How to Deal with Employees Who Don’t Follow Instructions

3. Examine the Workplace Culture

Workplace culture is a set of values and beliefs that define an organization’s attitudes, behaviors, customs, and policies towards its employees.

Consider whether there is anything else going on in the workplace that may be affecting this individual’s behavior. Have they been passed over for promotion?

If so, you may want to take steps and fix the situationYou might also consider taking some responsibility yourself — the person may be feeling unhappy because you’re not helping them meet their needs.

It could be as simple as focusing on what makes everyone happy at work and not just meeting deadlines.  If they’re unhappy with the work itself, then you might consider switching them to another role in the company or letting them go altogether.

Yes, you must act swiftly if an employee is insubordinate but try to understand why before disciplining the person.

Sometimes insubordination is a sign of something else going wrong within the workplace. In this case, recognizing the underlying cause can help make sure any disciplinary action taken is appropriate. Just ensure that you don’t condone or reward insubordinate behaviors.

4. Provide Specific Clear Instructions

Providing clear instructions is to tell people what you want in a simple way without any ambiguity or room for misinterpretation so that they can clearly understand your objective.

Give them specific instructions on how to complete their task, including a deadline. Many managers are always under the false impression that their employees will know what they’re supposed to do without being told.

That is not a safe assumption because you never really know whether or not an employee has a clear understanding of your expectations until you’ve explicitly confirmed that they clearly understand your detailed instruction.

Some employees don’t wait to be told what to do, and that’s fine. But in places where you have people who try to work above your authority, you need to give them specific instructions with deadlines if necessary.

Explain to them how to complete tasks and make sure they know their responsibilities. Don’t let them bully you and refuse to follow your instructions.

5. Avoid Singling Out Measures

In the workplace, it is not uncommon to see one person singled out for their mistakes while others who have committed equally or even worse offenses are left alone. Yes, disciplining employees should be handled on a case-by-case basis but not to pick on others.

Singling someone out can be like the following example, if an employee who is late after being given advance notice that punctuality was mandatory, they may receive a warning letter, while another person who came in two minutes late might receives disciplinary action that could lead to termination of employment.

Your actions as a manager might not seem as bad as the person who refuses to follow instructions, but it still has consequences. This situation often leaves employees feeling not treated fairly and can cause dissatisfaction with company culture in general.

The best way to avoid that is to use a more objective approach when disciplining your team members. Evaluate everyone on the same level and make sure that they all receive an equal punishment for their actions.

Read also: Managing Difficult Employees and Disruptive Behaviors

6. Give Them an Ultimatum

You can’t be a pushover and allow your employees to take advantage of you or the company. You have to stand up and hold them accountable.

Sometimes, a warning may be enough for the first infraction, but if you do not take any action after the second one, then you will have an insubordinate employee on your hands.

If someone does not follow orders or continues to do what they want, they should get ultimatums, either comply or face disciplinary action.

7. Record all Incidents of Insubordination

If there should be a dispute between yourself and an employee, it is best to have documented evidence of all incidents of insubordination.

For example, if you ask someone who has previously demonstrated their unwillingness to follow your instructions, that would be considered insubordination.

So when dealing with such behaviors, document all incidents with dates, times, location, witness’s statements (if any), your response, actions taken by you or a supervisor.

To document all incidents of insubordination as evidence is critical because you need it during disciplinary meetings.

The information will provide concrete proof that the employee knew what they were doing was wrong but didn’t care.

Documentation can help establish past behavior, and you have evidence if it becomes necessary to take further action against the employee.

8. Performance Manage Your Employee

One way to deal with difficult employees is by using the performance management technique.

Performance management is the process of identifying performance gaps, communicating expectations, and taking corrective action. It requires a written performance improvement plan.

The performance improvement plan is a formal document that outlines everything an underperforming employee needs to do to improve.  It specifies the corrective actions, timelines, and consequences like termination of employment for not achieving defined performance objectives.

The purpose of using a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is to ensure your insubordinate employee gets the opportunity and resources for them to improve their work performance or correct their behaviors.

Putting them on a performance improvement plan means you’re still giving them a chance to improve and change their ways.

The reality is that many people are difficult or even insubordinate because they don’t know how else to act or behave to get what they want. It could be worth showing that you tried to help your employee to correct their behavior.

Read more: Stop Your Talented Employee Overstepping Boundaries

9. Terminating an Employee

It can be tempting to dismiss an insubordinate employee straight away, but that might not be a good idea. You cannot just randomly fire an employee. It is not as simple as that. If the employee does not do what they are supposed to, it can be a lot of trouble for you.

The person might have been doing the job for years before something changed and became difficult to work with. You need to know how to deal with the situation to ensure this does not happen again.

Before taking measures against an insubordinate employee, think about whether or not you want to keep them on your team. If you would be happy if they walked into your office today and resigned, then it might be better to let them go.

If they are someone that you do not want to lose, set higher standards for what they need to do and tell them that they must meet those standards for them to stay in their jobs.

If the employee repeatedly refuses to comply and you documented everything, use the most recent incident as a last resort to fix their insubordination behavior. If that doesn’t work, then fire them.

The document will be your proof of evidence that you tried to help the person but didn’t change their behavior.


Dealing with an insubordinate employee is a delicate situation that requires great care. There are many reasons for insubordination, but the cause doesn’t matter — what matters is how you deal with it.

Whether you’re dealing with one or more employees who have become disrespectful or rude to their colleagues or supervisors, there’s no time like the present to act.

You need to set clear expectations for your employees about what is accepted and expected from them in terms of conduct at work and provide regular feedback on how well they are meeting those expectations to improve going forward.

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