| John Spacey, September 21, 2021 updated on June 21, 2022
Insubordination is an intentional refusal by an employee to follow a reasonable order from their employer. This implies an order from someone with authority over the employee's work that is acknowledged but intentionally disobeyed. The following are illustrative examples and counterexamples.
Verbal DirectiveDisobeying a reasonable verbal directive. For example, an employee who is asked not to swear in front of customers who continues to do so.
Written InstructionsViolating a written instruction that you have acknowledged. For example, a manager who ignores a budget approval process who has been warned to comply in writing but continues to bypass the process.
DutiesA failure to fulfill the basic duties of a role that have been well communicated. For example, a school nurse who is instructed to contact a child's parents or guardians whenever they are sick or injured who consistently ignores this duty.
InsolenceAn employee who responds to a manager with hostility such that they will not accept directives. For example, a restaurant manager who asks a waiter to serve some customers who is insulted and ignored by the waiter.
Use of PublicityUsing public forums in an attempt to gain leverage over an employer to sideline its processes and authority structure. This may include attacks on the reputation of a firm and/or coworkers. For example, an employee who is assigned an unpopular shift who uses social media to allege bias and unfair treatment.
Use of CustomersAttempts to use customers to gain leverage over the employer. For example, a consultant who is reassigned who asks their client to intervene on their behalf.
MiscommunicationIn order to be considered insubordination, directives must be accurately and precisely communicated. Failures due to miscommunication are not insubordination. For example, a manager who asks a salesperson to follow up with a customer who assumes this means a phone call while the salesperson assumes an email is fine.
Reasonable ExcusesGenerally speaking insubordination does not apply to an employee who tries to follow a directive but runs into some problem. For example, a salesperson who is asked to attend a meeting but gets stuck on a late running train. Likewise, tasks that run late aren't insubordination where the employee has taken some steps to try to complete the work.
Changing PrioritiesIf a manager overloads an employee with directives such that they are simply too busy to action all directives this would not be insubordination. For example, front desk staff who are too busy serving customers to get to a task assigned by a hotel manager.
Malicious ComplianceMalicious compliance is when an employee uses an organization's own processes, procedures and regulations against the organization. This violates the spirit of orders but is not direct insubordination. For example, a customer service agent who is asked to give a customer a refund who uses some company rule to deny or delay the refund.
EscalationEscalation of a dispute with your manager to their manager is generally not insubordination. For example, an employee who feels that an order is ethically wrong who escalates their concerns to an appropriate authority within the company would not be insubordinate given that this escalation was somewhat reasonable.
Unreasonable OrdersInsubordination does not apply to unreasonable orders such as a request to break the law, do something unethical, do something that you feel is unsafe or that is against company policy. Likewise, it wouldn't apply to an order that is unreasonable given your role and capabilities. For example, an accountant who is suddenly asked to perform a janitorial task.
WhistleblowersWhistleblowers that factually report a serious allegation to the proper authorities aren't insubordinate.
NotesThe term insubordination is typically applied to serious nonperformance by an employee. Less serious performance issues are typically known as poor performance or low performance.The examples and counterexamples above are based on the definition below. Interpretations of insubordination will vary by nation, jurisdiction and context.
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