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What constitutes insubordination?

Insubordination in the workplace refers to an employee's intentional refusal to obey an employer's lawful and reasonable orders. Such a refusal would undermine a supervisor's level of respect and ability to manage and, therefore, is often a reason for disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

There are three factors in determining insubordination:

  1. The employer gives the order.
  2. The employee acknowledges the order.
  3. The employee refuses to carry out the order.

The order itself may take the form of a verbal directive, written instructions, the duties as described in a job description and even an implied set of duties where no formal job description exists. Employee acknowledgments can be verbal, nonverbal (nodding) or even the acceptance of a job offer. An employee's unwillingness to carry out a directive can manifest itself as a verbal refusal, a nonverbal refusal or an unreasonable delay in completing the work. Being verbally disrespectful is not a requirement here, as simply refusing to punch a time clock when directed to do so will constitute insubordination.

Employer policies prohibiting insubordination often go beyond disobedience to include rude and disrespectful behaviors, best described as insolence. These behaviors can include cursing, verbal or physical intimidation, personal insults, eye rolling or mocking, as well as speaking loudly or argumentatively in front of others. Over time, insolent behaviors can also affect a manager's level of respect and ability to manage, thereby enmeshing insolence and insubordination. Employers can expect employees to show professionalism and respect toward others and may discipline them when they don't.

There is one caveat: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has opined that Section 7 rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) may be violated if an employer disciplines or terminates an employee for cursing or other typically insolent behaviors while he or she is engaged in a protected concerted activity. Therefore, employers should protect themselves by seeking legal counsel before disciplining in matters concerning the terms and conditions of employment.

In addition, when addressing insolent or insubordinate behavior, the employer should consider the culture or circumstances in which an incident took place. For example, if cursing is common "shop talk" in the workplace, the employer would need to consider whether the language used by the employee was unusual enough to be considered abusive.

Lastly, a refusal to carry out an order may result from a misunderstanding of instructions or a fear of unsafe work. In certain circumstances, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protects workers who refuse to perform work if they believe in good faith that performing the work would put employees in imminent danger. An employee's refusal to do something that is illegal, unethical or a violation of company policy would not be considered insubordination.



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