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The HR definition of insubordination

According to the HR Dictionary, insubordination is an employee’s wilful act of refusing to do what a person in authority, such as a supervisor or a department head, tells them to do. An insubordinate worker is an individual who intentionally and inexcusably refuses to obey a reasonable request which relates to their job function and acts disrespectfully toward their supervisor.

Real World Examples

Insubordinate behaviour can include disobedience, resistance to authority, defiance of authority, refusal or failure to comply with reasonable and lawful instructions, insolence, disrespect, blatant rudeness and causing risk to the employer’s name and business reputation. Failure to address insubordinate behaviour immediately, properly or with good judgment can cause morale to suffer and other rebellious or mutinous acts. Some organisations can experience actual work stoppages due to insubordination.


The characteristics present during insubordinate behaviour include a wilful disregard of management authority, accompanied by any combination of disrespect, rudeness, rebelliousness or disobedient actions, and threats of physical violence. These actions can manifest themselves in both verbal and nonverbal forms. For example, some workers may criticise their assignments. Others may simply walk away from their supervisor mid-sentence and provide no explanation. Workers who address their senior colleagues in a disrespectful manner demonstrate insubordinate behaviour.

Insubordination and Insolence

Some employers tend to use the terms "insolence" and "insubordination" interchangeably. Both are distinct behaviours of misconduct. Insolence occurs when an individual directs derisive or abusive language at their superior. Insubordination occurs when an employee intentionally refuses to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable request. Although insubordination is synonymous with disobedience, the same is not true for insubordination and insolence. Although insolence often accompanies insubordinate behaviour, insubordination and insolence can both occur independent of each other.

Handling Insubordinate Wokers

Managers of insubordinate workers typically address their behaviour following normal disciplinary protocols, such as suspension, demotion or reassignment. While policies for handling insubordination vary by company, they generally involve a similar set of tasks. A manager first encountering insubordinate behaviour must inform the employee that their behaviour could result in disciplinary action. Sometimes it is helpful to have another supervisor present when counselling an insubordinate worker. Further action is not needed if the individual becomes receptive to direction. The manager must document the incident in the employee's human resources file so he or a future manager can reference it should insubordination occur again.

What To Do Next

A manager's knee-jerk reaction to an insubordinate employee may be to take the disciplinary action of firing the individual. This action presents legal risks, especially if the employee believes the work assigned is illegal or potentially dangerous. Managers may want to consider an employee's past performance to determine if they demonstrate a chronically insubordinate attitude. Employees that are typically stellar performers may not understand the task. Managers can potentially address some insubordinate behaviours by simply asking the individual to explain their actions and working with them to correct it.