Dealing With Insubordination In The Workplace: 5 Examples And Effective Tips

Dealing With Insubordination In The Workplace

In any work environment, there is bound to be some level of disagreement, conflict, or misunderstanding between employees and their managers. While occasional disputes are expected, insubordination in the workplace takes things to another level by undermining authority and disrupting workflow. Insubordinate behavior, if left unaddressed, can severely damage company culture and morale. As a manager, it is important to be able to identify insubordination and deal with it promptly and appropriately.

This article discusses what constitutes insubordination based on legal and HR standards, provides 5 examples of common insubordinate behaviors witnessed in various workplace settings, explores potential causes of insubordination, and offers effective tips to address insubordination to maintain a harmonious and productive work environment.

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What is Considered Insubordination in the Workplace?

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), insubordination in the workplace involves 3 key factors – an employer gives a lawful and reasonable directive, the employee acknowledges the order, and the employee willfully refuses to follow the order.

While insubordination mainly refers to disobeying a direct superior, it can also include disrespecting company policies/procedures and undermining authority through actions or words. Some common forms of insubordination include verbal defiance, deliberate delay/non-performance of assigned tasks, public humiliation of managers, spreading rumors, and encouraging dissent among other staff members.

However, not following an unethical or illegal order, refusing due to genuine misunderstanding or inability, or respectfully communicating disagreements would not be considered insubordination. Managers should seek guidance from legal/HR departments to properly evaluate workplace behaviors.

5 Examples of Insubordination in the Workplace

1. Verbal abuse and threats

Using aggressive, threatening, derogatory, or humiliating language towards managers/supervisors in front of other employees challenges the existing power structure and disrupts workflow.

2. Ignoring safety protocols

Deliberately violating well-communicated safety norms endangers everyone on the job. A construction worker ignoring hard hat rules or a lab employee disobeying hazardous material handling procedures puts lives at risk.

3. Leaking confidential documents

Sharing private company files, client information, trade secrets, and financial records without authorization is a serious offense and is considered corporate espionage in many jurisdictions.

4. Refusal to collaborate with teammates

Declining collaborative assignments and tasks not only hinders progress but demotivates co-workers from productive teamwork as well.

5. Abusive behavior virtually

With the hybrid workplace model, contemptuous online conduct like muting others, airing personal grievances, or screen-sharing inappropriate content during official virtual meetings crosses the limits of appropriate conduct.

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Causes of Insubordination

While insubordination mainly stems from disrespecting authority figures, there may be underlying reasons fueling such behavior:

  • Poor communication leads to confusion and frustration among employees
  • Unrealistic work demands without adequate support or resources
  • Favoritism, bias, or abusive management practices perceived to be unfair
  • Lack of appreciation, recognition, or involvement in decision-making
  • Rigid policies restricting employee autonomy and growth opportunities
  • External personal issues like financial/family problems affecting work

Effective Tips to Address Insubordination in the Workplace

1. Communicate Clear Expectations

Set defined standards of workplace conduct through an employee handbook and recurring workshops to avoid scope for ambiguity.

2. Address Issues Immediately

Do not ignore minor incidents hoping they will resolve on their own. Timely intervention builds trust in management’s responsibility.

3. Follow Due Process

Maintain objectivity by hearing both sides, documenting all exchanges, and imposing consequences as per predetermined disciplinary policies.

4. Offer Counseling/Training

For first-time or minor offenses, remedial actions like counseling, coaching, or relevant skills workshops may reverse negative behavior.

5. Be Consistent & Impartial

Disciplinary actions should be implemented uniformly regardless of employee seniority, and designations to establish fairness and avoid discrimination charges.


Q1. What are the legal implications of insubordination?

Insubordination is a lawful cause for dismissal if the employee refuses to obey reasonable instructions after warnings. However, employers must follow due process and prove willful disobedience to avoid wrongful termination suits.

Q2. Is it considered insubordination if an employee questions an unethical directive?

No, an employee refusing to carry out tasks perceived to be illegal, dangerous, or against their moral principles is protected from disciplinary actions as long as they lodge formal complaints through appropriate channels rather than directly disobeying orders.

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Q3. How should a manager deal with an emotionally charged insubordination situation?

Remain composed and do not reciprocate emotional outbursts. Take time to cool off, document the incident factually then take measured actions like coaching, warnings, or suspensions as per policies rather than terminating someone in the heat of the moment.

Q4. Can insubordination lead to termination even during the probation period?

Yes, since recruits are also expected to follow workplace rules and conduct themselves respectfully. However, lesser penalties may be considered based on the severity of misconduct and the employee’s past performance during the probationary learning phase.

Q5. Is it possible to curb insubordinate behavior through preventive measures?

Yes, fostering an environment of openness, fairness, and support through empathetic listening, recognition of efforts, involvement in decisions impacting work, and addressing concerns transparently helps boost morale and commitment to standards of conduct.


In summary, dealing with insubordination requires a balanced approach between assertiveness and compassion. While reproaching inappropriate conduct, understanding root causes to introduce reforms to minimize future conflicts. Promote a culture of respect, cooperation, and growth through leading by positive example, clear policies, and support structures for all. With open communication and equitable treatment, you can minimize unhealthy power struggles and optimize workplace cooperation.


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