What is Considered as Insubordination in the Workplace?

What is Insubordination Behavior | What Constitutes Employee Insubordination | What Constitutes Gross Insubordination | What Constitutes Serious Insubordination

One of the most pressing issues many managers face in the workplace is dealing with employee’s insubordinations.  Choosing the right set of actions to take and stop the employee’s inappropriate behavior is not always easy.  Sometimes what is considered as insubordination in the workplace is not very clear.  

However, insubordination is contemptuous and undermines the manager’s ability to manage.  The right to ask employees to do their work without unnecessary debates is critical to the role of being a manager.

What is Considered as Insubordination in the Workplace?

Insubordination in the workplace is when an employee intentionally refuses to obey lawful and reasonable orders from a person in authority.   The person in authority is usually a manager, team leader, or supervisor with powers to give orders and instructions to the employee. 

What constitutes insubordination in the workplace is disruptive behavior that happens in many forms where an employee:

  • Refuses outright to carry out work or complete certain tasks
  • Deliberately perform poorly
  • Expresses disappointment and dissatisfaction all the time
  • Persistently complain
  • Constantly roll-eyes or sigh whenever asked to carry out a task
  • Makes inappropriate comments
  • Refuses to follow a manager’s instructions
  • Defies direct orders from a manager
  • Disrespects their employer or managers
  • Treats a manager’s instruction as a burden

Also, what defines insubordination is when an employee resists taking instructions from anyone acting legitimately on behalf of a person in authority.

Read More: Stop Your Talented Employee Overstepping Boundaries

Types of Insubordination in the Workplace

There is a distinction between insubordination and serious insubordination.  In situations where employee misconduct is relatively minor and there are mitigation circumstances, that is considered as insubordination. 

But in circumstances where employee misconduct is an extreme improper behavior and warrants a dismissal, that is serious and it is considered as gross insubordination.

What is Considered as Gross Insubordination in the Workplace?

Gross insubordination is when an employee disrespects the person in authority and breaks the trust of employers.  In other words, it is serious insubordination and a disrespectful way of conduct directed towards a manager, team leader, or supervisor.   Gross insubordination occurs when an employee:

  • Openly challenge or mock a manager’s decisions
  • Responds to constructive criticism aggressively with unacceptable foul language
  • Is rude and threaten their employer
  • Constantly criticise the management publicly or on media platforms
  • Openly belittle and challenge the decisions of their manager
  • Uses different gesture that show disrespect towards a manager, team leader or a supervisor
  • Explicitly use abusive and vulgar language towards their manager
  • Using abusive language towards the person in authority
  • Challenge the manager’s authority
  • The employee’s conduct makes it difficult to maintain a normal working relationship with the manager

When is it not Insubordination?

Nevertheless, not all employee refusals to perform a specific job are considered insubordination.  For example, if the employee refuses to do what seems to be unethical or illegal work at the request of a manager, this should not be considered insubordination. 

Moreover, the employee has the right to refuse to perform any tasks assigned by another employee who does not have any authority to do so.

Also read: How to Deal with Employees Who Don’t Follow Instructions

How to Deal with Insubordination in the Workplace?

  1. If your employee has been insubordinate, you must act swiftly and deal with it straight away. Insubordination if not dealt with can undermine the manager’s credibility in the workplace, thus the ability to manage properly.

How you deal with insubordination at work primarily depend upon the nature of the incident in question.  However, you should always follow your workplace disciplinary guidelines whenever you are dealing with any inappropriate employee behavior. 

It doesn’t matter whether the person has committed a minor case or a serious offense.  You must follow your company code of conduct guidelines and make sure that the employee is treated fairly throughout the disciplinary proceeding.

  1. The manager must speak to an insubordinate employee immediately after the incident.If there is a reason you cannot have a conversation with the employee right after the incident, it’s fine to have it later.

Don’t take too long because you must sit down with the insubordinate employee to discuss what happened.  If you don’t do that you will be sending a message that such behaviors are tolerated, which you don’t want to happen.

  1. In any case, you need to remain calm and professional. Of course, most insubordination incidents involve acts of disrespectful behaviors.  You should not yell or appear intimidating when dealing with insubordinate employee.  

It is unprofessional when managers yell at their staff.   Having said that, raising your voice a bit to speak while an insubordinate employee is speaking over you is different, particularly if it is the only way you can be heard. 

Any employee who talks over a manager is dismissive and disrespectful.  So, you can raise the voice to assert yourself and gain control of the situation in the face of a rude employee. 

But don’t get stuck into exchanging words with your employee.   As soon as you make the environment conducive to have a serious conversation, stay calm even if you feel humiliated.  It’s also important you remain calm without appearing to be rude, or becoming angry.  

  1. It is worth thinking about what causes the employee to behave like that.Is it frustrations because of unclear expectations and demands from a manager? 

Sometimes employees angrily react to requests that seem unreasonable or unfair.  To be clear, if your employee has a legitimate grievance, you must consider it as a reasonable excuse. 

What is not acceptable is when the employee defies legitimate orders or the person choose to be rude, dismissive, and disrespectful to their manager.

How to Discipline for Insubordination

Deciding what set of actions to take when you are dealing with improper behaviors in the workplace is hard. But determining whether insubordination amounts to direct dismissal is even harder.

So, when you are deciding how discipline an insubordinate employee, first look carefully at all facts and circumstances surrounding the incident.  You must also consider:

  • Thinking about what caused the employee to behave like that
  • The number of instances of misconduct
  • If it is frustrations because of unclear expectations and demands from a manager
  • Whether there is a reasonable excuse for your employee to misbehave that way
  • The employee’s work history and employment record
  • Other mitigating factors


What is considered as insubordination in the workplace is a serious improper behavior, contemptuous, and undermines the manager’s ability to manage.

However, it is necessary to understand first if there is something that drives an employee to behave in that manner before deciding the appropriate disciplinary actions to take.

Where there is a repeated employee’s insubordination, it can lead to dismissal. Never give in to temptation and solve this problem through cruel methods.

You should also remind all employees of the company’s policy on employee conduct. Even if you get on well with your staff members, it is necessary you set clear boundaries and let them know the consequences of overstepping those boundaries.

So, any violation will lead to severe consequences — including outright dismissal.

Last but very important, never forget to document all incident of inappropriate employee behaviors.

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