It can be difficult to know how to handle workplace insubordination. After all, there are different acts of insubordination with varying levels of severity. This means there’s no one-size-fits-all playbook to guide how an HR department should proceed in this situation. Then, in addition to the incident itself, you also have to look at what motivated the behavior, as that can shape the most appropriate way to address the situation.
Let’s start by discussing what insubordination is and what it isn’t. We’ll then share examples of insubordination in the workplace, and review strategies you can use to resolve the situation.
What is Insubordination at Work?
Insubordination is an employee’s refusal to comply with a direct order by their supervisor. This type of refusal could be anything from disobeying direct instructions and exhibiting arguing with their manager to openly challenging authority, ignoring requests, or not following company policies and procedures. Tackling insubordination issues can improve employee relations and maintain and improve the wellbeing of your workforce.
Five Insubordination Examples
Examples of insubordination in the workplace can be active, like publicly disputing decisions from leadership teams. Insubordination can also take the form of passive-aggressive behavior like disrespectful body language — rolling eyes or not making eye contact when speaking with a supervisor, for example.
Take a look at five other examples of insubordination in the workplace:
- Refusing to Finish a Task
When employees actively refuse to complete their manager-assigned work within the allotted time — especially if it happens consistently — it’s blatant insubordination. More than that, leadership teams could interpret it as outright abandoning an employee’s duties.
- Intimidating, Harassing, or Abusing Staff Members
If an employee purposely insults a superior or colleague or calls anyone disrespectful names, they’re being insubordinate. This is also the case if a team member swears at anyone or uses another abusive language, especially if it has happened more than once. Gossiping about supervisors and peers also constitutes harassment, and can rise to the level of intimidation or abuse.
- Sabotaging Company Activities
If an employee is intentionally hampering a company project or trying to hinder their colleagues’ workflow, it’s considered insubordination. Other iterations include a staff member deliberately refusing to complete a work assignment, or going out of their way to slow its progress.
- Leaving Work Early Without Notice or Approval
When employees skip out of work unannounced or without approval, they exhibit insubordinate behavior. They’re refusing to follow company policies and procedures — essentially the purest form of employee insubordination — so HR and leadership teams are likely to become involved.
- Not Showing Up for Work at All
Failing to come to work without giving any prior notice or obtaining a formal leave of absence makes an employee insubordinate. When an employee doesn’t show up for work at all, it’s viewed as a sign that they are no longer taking their job seriously.
Workplace infractions and insubordinate conduct are often easy to spot and understand, but others may require an explanation. Talk to your staff members about company-specific definitions of insubordination, so all team members know the behaviors that are considered “insubordinate” conduct.
What is Not Considered Insubordination
It’s important to note that insubordination is not the same as insensitivity, rudeness, insolence, or a poor attitude — these are all separate issues with their own solutions. Further, not all instances of insubordination are treated equally.
It’s important that you refrain from punishing an employee for being “insubordinate” when they are only being assertive. Taking actions like asking questions about an assignment or voicing an opinion alternative to a colleague’s are not punishable offenses. In fact, HR and leadership teams should encourage workers to dive deeper into their understanding of their positions by engaging in these ways.
How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts
When forms of insubordination or other workplace conflict arise, HR and leadership teams need to investigate what happened so they can resolve the issue quickly and effectively. The best way to do this is with respectful dialogue and active listening. Listen to both sides of the story without jumping to conclusions or reacting emotionally — that behavior will only fuel insubordination in the workplace.
Here are some tips for creating conflict resolution in the workplace:
Stay Calm and Objective
Listen to both sides of the conflict and try to understand what happened from each person’s perspective. Don’t be quick to judge or blame one side — take the time to listen, observe body language, and ask questions. These recommendations apply even if another leadership team member is one party in the conflict.
Document Incidents of Conflict
It’s encouraged to note (literally, write it down!) what happened during the insubordination incident. Document each conflict and include details like the specific insubordinate behavior, witnesses present, the dates and times. This documentation is necessary for any “evidence” you may need if the situation escalates or legal action is taken.
Report It and Involve Other Leadership Members
If insubordination happens, HR and leadership teams should report it to their superiors. They should also involve other higher-ups from the leadership team if necessary. After all, insubordination can be a sign of a more significant problem with the organization’s culture and employee satisfaction that needs to be addressed.
Develop a Plan of Action
Once you’ve documented and reported the insubordination incident, your company’s HR and leadership teams need to decide on the next steps. Your action plan could be to issue a verbal warning, provide a write-up or written warning, or reprimand your employee. Other action items could involve more serious disciplinary action, like suspending or terminating the insubordinate employee.
If you want your staff to have a single source of truth for information about workplace conflict and how to resolve it, consider digitizing and sharing your employee handbook. Include your company’s specific information on the types of insubordination and topics of conflict that affect your organization.
Sidestep Insubordination by Supporting Employees
When dealing with employee behavior, employers should consider all their options for resolving insubordination. This includes not just dealing with the behavior itself but addressing the root cause of employees’ defiance. One cause could be employees’ state of health and wellness. Nearly half — 47% — of working adults say that theirjobs have negatively affected their mental health, and 43% say that their mental health has negatively affected their job performance, according to The Harris Poll.
Employees who don’t feel cared for and supported are less likely to feel positive about their connection to the workplace. Actively working to improve your employee engagement can help you increase employee satisfaction and engagement, which will reduce the likelihood of encountering incidents of insubordination. If you want help refining your company’s employee engagement process by improving your workers’ mental and physical health, talk to a Gympass wellbeing specialist today.
- Skiera, AJ. (May 17, 2022). Workplace Mental Health a Priority for Today’s Workers. The Harris Poll. Retrieved March 9, 2023 from https://theharrispoll.com/briefs/workplace-mental-health-awareness-week/.
The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.