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What is insubordination in the workplace?

When an employee "wilfully fails to obey a supervisor’s lawful orders,” this constitutes insubordination, according to Insubordination is also defined as a continuing or constant intentional refusal to obey an implied or direct order that is reasonable in nature and issued by someone in authority.


The charge of insubordination is generally used in one of two situations--when there is a confrontation between a supervisor and an employee, or when an employee refuses a direct order from a supervisor, notes the Coalition of University Employees (CUE Union). A shouting match between a supervisor and an employer could result in a charge of insubordination against the employee. If the supervisor tells an employee to do a task and he refuses, this can result in the same charge.


If there is only one incident of insubordination on an employee’s part, this may not result in termination, although the individual may be written up or put on probation. Generally, it requires more than one act of insubordination or a consistent pattern of this behaviour to get you canned from a job, explains However, there are always exceptions.


If one act of insubordination is extremely grave, it may end up in dismissal, notes This can occur particularly when work rules are known by the employee and have been clearly communicated by a superior. The worker may also be fired if the action or inaction was a deliberate and wilful disobedience of an order, or if the work rules are consistently enforced and the employee knows that. Also, if the work order was clearly within the scope of the worker’s duties, was reasonable and lawful in content, and he knew the consequences of violations, he could be dismissed.

Work Now, Grieve Later

If an employee fails rather than refuses to carry out an order, or if she protests while carrying out the order, this may amount to a lesser charge and disciplinary action. If an employee is instructed to do something that she believes is illegal, improper, unfair, objectionable or in violation of a union contract, the general rule of thumb is “work now, grieve later," explains However, there are exceptions to that when an employee believes that the work order will endanger the health and safety of herself and others.

Watch Your Language

Abusive language may count as an insubordination charge, explains CUE Union. This depends on the nature of the workplace. If the prevailing standard in the workplace is the use of profane and objectionable language, an arbitrator may conclude that an employee is not guilty of insubordination. However, when the prevailing standard disallows the use of profane or abusive language, talking in such a manner can get you fired.