Insubordination at work – 4 actionable tips for HR

  • HR

    Insubordination at work – 4 actionable tips for HR

    Posted by Brian Robinson on November 3, 2022 at 3:14 am

    ‘Insubordination’ in its various forms can cause serious conflicts in the workplace. This term refers to anyone who disobeys or deliberately disobeys authorities and can result in penalties for them. Understanding what constitutes subordination and how to handle this issue can help managers ensure a productive, positive workplace.

    In this article, we discuss insubordination in the workplace, including examples of this concept and tips you can use to resolve conflicts with employees.

    Insubordination - HR

    What is insubordination? A definition

    The straightforward dictionary definition is “Defiance of authority; refusal to obey orders.” The workplace, however, generally isn’t set up where managers expect perfect adherence to management direction. Often, professional-level employees are given a lot of leeway in how they approach their job. Good managers recognize that their direct reports are the experts in their jobs, and rely on the employee to push back.

    The difference between insubordination and pushback generally occurs in how the employee approaches the situation. If an employee ignores manager instruction and does something else, that’s insubordination. However, if the employee contacts the manager and explains why the manager’s guidelines are a bad idea, a discussion ensues, and they ultimately agree, that’s pushback.

    Sometimes insubordination is protected by law. For instance, there is a legal doctrine called “wrongful termination in violation of public policy in the United States.” An employee can be protected when refusing to carry out an illegal order. While it is insubordination, the courts will side with the employee. Whistleblower protection is also widespread.

    What is considered insubordination in the workplace?

    The primary workplace insubordination case is straightforward: Manager says do A. The employee says no. That’s insubordination. That happens all the time – sometimes through utter rebellion and sometimes through forgetfulness, unrealistic manager expectations, and sometimes through pure laziness. If a manager says, “Do these 50 tasks today”, and the employee only does 38 of them, no one considers that insubordination.

    As a general rule, according to the Society for Human Resources Management, insubordination requires three things:

    1. An authority figure issues an order, either verbally or in written format.
    2. The order given is reasonable and legal.
    3. The employee acknowledges the order and refuses to do it.

    But in practical application, when a manager reprimands someone for insubordination, it’s generally an egregious situation. For example, an employee who yells his refusal to carry out instructions in front of a customer is far more likely to be written up or otherwise disciplined for insubordination than one who quietly does what he wants.

    In other words, polite insubordination is more acceptable than rude defiance. A manager’s tolerance level for disobedience will depend on the severity of the situation and whether the employee repeats the behavior. A one-time quiet refusal to do something will probably be accepted, while repeated loud refusals will result in punishment.

    Insubordination Examples

    While most insubordination cases are quietly handled within the workplace, there are some cases where rebellion against a boss makes headlines.

    President Trump is famously outspoken about staff problems. When Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was removed from his position as a US National Security Council Member, Trump tweeted:

    “Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about ‘Lt. Col.’ Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was. Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!) but, he was very insubordinate.”

    Lt. Col. Vindman’s attorney refutes the allegation that he was insubordinate.

    US politicians aren’t the only ones who deal with insubordination. German Chancellor Angela Merkel dealt with a rebellious staff member, French President Emmanuel Macron declared he wouldn’t tolerate insubordination and battled with a General.

    But, general workplace insubordination is much more common, but they are often fraught with claims on both sides. Here are a few cases of insubordination:

    1. Refusing to complete a task

    As mentioned, an employee displays insubordination when they refuse to perform a task ordered by their employer that’s within the scope of their job. For example, the job description of a barista might include cleaning the cafe tables at the end of the day. If a manager asks them to complete this task and they ignore or refuse them, the manager can call it insubordination.

    However, employees can still say no to duties depending on the situation. If the barista expressed concerns about cleaning the tables or provided reasons they can’t do it that day, they might find a compromise with their manager. Similarly, if the manager asked the barista to perform an unethical or illegal activity, they could refuse without being deemed insubordinate.

    2. Failing to show up for work

    When employees start a job, they typically need to agree to particular terms of employment, including a work schedule. These rules set expectations for the employer to appear at work at certain times and days, such as Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If an individual refuses to come into the office during their required or assigned schedule, that can serve as an example of insubordination.

    3. Leaving early without notice

    During onboarding, employees also agree to remain at work during the hours set for them. Disobeying these rules can constitute insubordination. For example, an insubordinate employee is scheduled to end their shift at 3 p.m. but decides to leave at 1 p.m. without notifying their employer or asking for permission.

    When the employer tells them they can’t leave, this employee would respond negatively or ignore the order. Again, the employee can avoid insubordination by seeking permission from employers before leaving work early or offering a reason for their departure that the employer deems valid.

    4. Disrespecting authority figures

    Employees can show insubordination by overtly disrespecting authority figures in the office. For example, an employee may create conflicts with their managers by yelling or using vulgar language toward them. They might also openly mock or disagree with their decisions or orders in front of colleagues, thus potentially putting the manager’s authority in doubt.

    Some workplaces might identify less overt disrespectful behaviors as insubordination, such as employees rolling their eyes at an authority figure when they provide orders or announce decisions. Workplaces can set standards for insubordination to make it clear what behaviors are appropriate and acceptable.

    5. Sabotaging team or organizational activities

    The act of sabotage refers to situations where an individual performs actions aimed at weakening or destroying something. In the workplace, these situations might include actions against a particular project, initiative or goal. An employee who refuses to perform their tasks as part of a project might constitute sabotage and insubordination.

    For example, if an employee refuses to deliver a report on the ordered deadline, it can affect the entire team’s ability to present their final deliverable to their client. This failure can result in negative consequences to the relationship with this client and their reputation.

    Similarly, they might perform tasks that their manager specifically asked them not to do because it harms the project or team in some way. Sabotage harms the work performed by the organization and might cause damage to its reputation or the reputation of the manager who oversees that employee.

    Of course, most cases of an insubordinate employee don’t reach the newspapers or the courts or labor boards. Most are more straightforward cases of employee rebellion. Refusing direct lawful orders, violating company policy, and bad behavior in front of customers often make up insubordination cases.

    Not every case of legitimate insubordination results in termination. Many companies use a progressive discipline model that requires instances of multiple rebellion before the company terminates the employee – as long as the case isn’t egregious.

    Insubordinate Behavior

    Technically, any variation from manager instructions is insubordination, but there needs to be a wilful component to it. Mistakes happen, and you should deal with those as common errors. Egregious insubordinate behavior has three parts:

    1. Rude behaviour.
    2. Aggressive behaviour.
    3. Threatening behaviour.

    These insubordinate behaviors demand an immediate and swift response. However, some forms of insubordination can be equally egregious without being so noticeable. For instance, if an employee quietly goes behind your back, that behavior is insubordinate, and you need to deal with it.

    Other examples of insubordinate behavior can include.

    1. Subtle sabotage. Instead of loudly objecting, an employee refuses to do the assigned task and works behind the scenes to cause the project to fail.
    2. Avoiding behavior. An employee says “Yes, of course” to your face, but doesn’t complete the task at hand. This is different than when an employee lacks the resources or ability to do the job. This is when an employee could do something but chooses not to.
    3. Doing the exact opposite of your instructions. This type of insubordination is often the most obvious, but if done quietly, many managers ignore it.

     

    Insubordination Interventions

    Naturally, employees want to keep their jobs, and managers want employees that carry out instructions. Sometimes there are legitimate clashes of ideas and personalities which can make this difficult, but here are some things managers can do.

    First, prevention.

    1. Set clear boundaries. If you let employees know your limits at the beginning, they know what they need to do, and conflict doesn’t arise as often.
    2. Listen to your employees. In many cases, insubordination results from a genuine disagreement over what the right action is. If you have an open relationship with your employees and listen when they say, “I don’t think we should do this,” you’ll have an opportunity to find a solution before insubordination occurs. Additionally, if you insist that your instructions are the right one, you’ll have a chance to explain the reasoning behind your order.
    3. Follow all laws and ethical standards. In the last two examples above, the employees felt that their employers were not following proper safety guidelines. Of course, the employers say there was much more going on than the employee objecting to the safety guidelines. If the employer had focused on following the health department guidelines, the employee wouldn’t feel the need to rebel. You’re also much less likely to lose your case in court or before a labor board if you’re careful to follow the law.

     

    How to handle insubordination after it happens

    No matter how good a manager you are, and how carefully you adhere to guidelines and rules, you will still experience insubordination from time to time. Here’s how to deal with an insubordinate employee.

    1. Identify the behavior immediately. Ignoring insubordination results in more insubordination. Even if it’s mild, letting it go sets an example that your instructions are just suggestions, not rules. This does not mean you need to be a micro-managing control freak. You don’t have to give instructions for everything, and you don’t need to control every aspect of your employees’ days (and you should not try to control their days). When you’ve given explicit instructions, and an employee doesn’t follow it, point it out.
    2. Issue consequences. Naturally, this varies in the circumstances. It may be insubordination when an employee locks the door at 17:05 instead of 17:00, but it’s not terribly important. A quick reminder, “We need to lock up right at 17:00.” If the behavior continues, then issue a formal warning and follow your company’s disciplinary guidelines. If the behavior is egregious, immediate punishment is in order. For example, if an employee lies to a customer and tells them the opposite of what you said, a quick write up or suspension will be necessary.
    3. Document. While managers often don’t record small infractions and wait until they have serious rebellion before taking action, this sets you up for failure. Every termination needs a paperwork trail – and this will protect you in court as well. Document the behavior, ask witnesses for statements, and keep everything in the proper file. Consult your HR manager for guidance in all of this.
    4. Be fair. Managers are human and naturally prefer some employees over other employees. But, when it comes to insubordination, there needs to be a single standard. Before you discipline one of your less favored employees, flip it to test it. Would you consider this insubordination if your favored employee did it? This is essential to keep employee morale high and build employee confidence. A fair manager is a good one.

    When dealing with insubordination, keep in mind that this is common around the globe, but that doesn’t make it okay. Make sure you’re not micromanaging or mistreating employees. Setting boundaries, following up promptly, and correcting problems at the moment, can reduce your incidences of egregious lousy behavior.

    On a final note

    Insubordination in the workplace is something that is, unfortunately, unavoidable. There are, however, things you can do to prevent insubordinate behavior as much as possible. Setting clear boundaries and listening to your employees when they disagree with you on something are excellent steps in the right direction. If it’s too late for prevention, adequate action is required; identify the behavior, issue consequences, document, and – perhaps most importantly – be fair.

    FAQ

    What does insubordinate mean in the workplace?

    As a general rule, insubordination requires three things (1) An authority figure issues an order, either verbally or in written format. (2) The order given is reasonable and legal. (3) The employee acknowledges the order and refuses to do it.

    How to deal with an insubordinate employee?

    In terms of prevention, you can set clear boundaries, listen to your employees if they don’t agree with something, and follow all laws and ethical standards. If subordination does occur you can best: identify the behavior immediately, issue consequences, document, and be fair.

    What is insubordinate conduct?

    Insubordinate conduct can, for instance, be subtle sabotage, avoiding behavior, or doing the exact opposite of the manager’s instructions.

    Brian Robinson replied 1 year, 6 months ago 1 Member · 0 Replies
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