What is Insubordination?

Mary McMahon

Insubordination is a refusal to carry out orders given by a superior. While this concept is often linked with the military, where there can be stiff punishments for refusing to follow orders because it threatens the hierarchical structure, it can also occur in the workplace. Under employment law, it is possible to terminate employees who engage in a persistent pattern of refusing to do as they are told.

Insubordination in the workplace might result in the employee being fired.
Insubordination in the workplace might result in the employee being fired.

There are several characteristics that must be present before a situation can be considered insubordination. The first is that the order must clearly be an order, in the form of a verbal or written statement that includes some variation on the phrase "this is an order." Someone who says "it would be nice if someone prepared this report" is not issuing an order; someone who says "Mrs. Jones, I am ordering you to prepare this report" is making a clear order.

Whistleblower laws aim to protect workers from getting fired in retaliation for reporting misconduct, which is different from insubordination.
Whistleblower laws aim to protect workers from getting fired in retaliation for reporting misconduct, which is different from insubordination.

In addition, the order must be proper and cannot violate the employee's contract or the law. If an order is not proper, there is no obligation to carry it out.

In direct insubordination, an employee verbally refuses to carry out an order or makes it clear that the order will not be carried out. Indirect insubordination involves a failure to complete an order, without explicitly stating that the order will not be fulfilled. Sometimes, people refuse an order because they think it is unethical or illegal. If this later turns out not to be the case, they can be penalized for not complying.

Before someone can be terminated for this behavior, the employer must document a past history, with oral and written warnings about failing to follow orders and the consequences. This information can be used later to demonstrate that an employee was aware of the fact that what he or she was doing was being viewed as insubordination, and that the employee was warned about the risk of termination if the behavior continued.

In the workplace, acts such as whistleblowing are not insubordination. Whistleblowers are people who believe that an unsafe or imprudent situation is occurring and speak up about it, either anonymously or publicly. They are protected by law because they are protecting the safety of the workplace. Likewise, people such as union stewards are permitted to question the validity of an order in their role as a union representative, because they are equal to management when advocating for employees.

Breaking a confidentiality agreement is often considered insubordination.
Breaking a confidentiality agreement is often considered insubordination.

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Discussion Comments


I guess companies define what insubordination is. I refused to train an employee worried for my own job (she had her own job but that wasn't enough for her). I was called insubordinate. I suppose that was the way for my boss to get rid of me. And I was really good at my job, but it did not matter. He selected her out of favoritism. So much for my many years of hard work.

We don't get justice from companies we work for. We ought to seek it in the court room.


I work with a total nutjob who has a title of assistant manager. Aside from her being bi-polar and rude and obnoxious, she doesn't know how to do her job or the jobs around her, so I confront her when she is trying to be confrontational. She told people I was lucky she didn't send me home. She's such an idiot; the store manager even said she can't send me home. I haven't done anything to her or refused to do anything.


I had a coworker a year ago who had recently been hired to work in the news department in page layout and design for our daily newspaper. They could tell that he was a bit quirky when they interviewed him, but they thought it shouldn’t be a problem.

Well, he ended up doing everything wrong. He messed up the color photo on the front page several times by cropping too much of it off so that you couldn’t even really tell what was going on. This angered the photographer, who truly values his work, seriously.

My friend who worked near him said that once, the quirky guy was on his cellphone with his girlfriend when the boss came up and started talking to him. Instead of getting off of the phone, he held up a finger to the boss as if to say, “I’ll be with you in a minute.” Instead of telling her he had to go, he just stayed on the phone. Bewildered, the boss went away and discussed the situation with the guy’s supervisor. They both agreed he should be fired for insubordination, because they had conducted several meetings with him prior to the phone incident in which they warned him that he must make improvements.


When the company I work for hired a new sales representative, they failed to tell her that part of her job description involved going out to the customers and collecting payments. Had she known this, she probably would not have taken the job.

She received an insubordination memo after her first few failures to go out and collect. She kept putting it off, but they suspected she never would do it. She confided in me that it is hard, if not impossible, to build and maintain a good client-representative relationship while knocking down their doors and harassing them for money.

After a few more bills piled up on her desk, they let her go. She didn’t mind terribly, because she absolutely detested having clients dread to see her coming. In some cases, she actually saw some of them slipping out the side door when she pulled up in their parking lot.


I have been told by my supervisor that he is keeping track of violations by my coworker who has the same job description as I do. I know that they don’t want to fire him. They are a small company, and they hate to fire anybody, but his work is so poor at times that they may have to eliminate him.

He has been told in various meetings to improve his efficiency by working faster and being on the internet less. They have also told him that the customer is always right, so even if demands seem unreasonable, it is our job to go along with them.

So far, he has failed to respond to these verbal orders. They also gave him a sheet of suggestions for improvements in written form. He has been given everything necessary for them to be able to fire him if he refuses to comply.


My friend and coworker absolutely hated her job, and she was not shy about voicing her disdain for it. She constantly talked to various coworkers around the office about policies she deemed ridiculous, and she often stated that she would be out of there as soon as her husband could find employment in a different city.

The boss kept a list of her violations on file, so that when they fired her for insubordination, they would have evidence to back it up. I think the final straw came when the boss caught her reading magazines at her desk after telling her not to, and she didn’t even try to hide it when he came into her office.


@whiteplane - I have the same problem sometimes; not in my talking back, but just in my lack of interest in being like everyone else. The worst has been when I had jobs that required a lot of communication or asking questions of superiors- at least, that was the expectation, rather than the strict requirement. I found that while often, confidence is seen as a virtue, sometimes it is seem as insubordination when it was never intended as such.


Boy I know about insubordination all to well. Sometimes I feel like it is a parrot riding around on my shoulder at all time.

It started in high school. I just couldn't respect my teachers or principle and I spent more time out of school than in school.

After school I went into the military. I made it to boot camp but I just couldn't stand the rough tough drill sergeant. His whole act just seemed ridiculous and I could never respect his orders. My military career was short lived.

After the army came a whole parade of dead end jobs. I would work one for a while and then mouth off to my boss and get canned. I was not a big deal for a while, there was always another job out there. But in the last few years it has gotten a lot harder and I have had to reconsider the way I've lived my life.

Its good to speak up but it is just as important to keep your mouth shut. Authority has its place and this needs to be respected. It took me about 20 years to learn this lesson but I think it is finally sinking it.


Insubordination can sometimes be a good thing. I know that being subordinate is sometimes necessary and even a good thing. However, there are times when a person ought to just stand right up and take up for themselves.

You see, the thing about a person always bowing down to a supposed superior is that often the superior will take advantage of that situation. That can be miserable for the person who is doing the bowing.

One good example is the traditional marriage. It wasn’t very long ago that women were taught to always ‘mind’ their husbands, and a woman could actually be ‘disciplined’ if she did not mind his every word.

As a result, many women were beaten and treated badly, and their husbands were excused.

Many people will site the Bible where it says that a woman should submit to her husband as an excuse for this kind of behavior.

They fail to point out that the Bible also points out that a husband should love his wife the way that Jesus loved the church. And, as I recall, Jesus died for the church's salvation. He never, ever did anything to hurt His people.


My children are masters of insubordination! I love my little hoodlums; I really do love them with all of my whole heart. However, no one on this planet can try my patience the way that they can.

Always, if I say go they want to stay. If I say stay they want to go. They are simply interested in being argumentative rather than actually doing what I tell them to.

I suppose that is just part of childhood and actually being a child. I remember doing the same sorts of things to my own parents when I was their ages.

I guess this is what my momma was talking about when she said we all get paid back for all of the insubordination we have dished out to our own parents when we have our own kids.


@Icecream17 - I think that every employee handbook discusses insubordination in some respects because it is crucial that everyone follow the rules laid out by the manager. The rules have to be the same for everyone because if not there might be charges of harassment in the workplace.

This happens when someone feels that they are being singled out and treated more harshly than the rest of the group. Sometimes older employees might claim that it is age discrimination which is why the rules of the workplace have to be spelled out for everyone and the demands of the manager have to be reasonable and fair.

Managers do have control over their departments, but employees rights also exist so that the manager cannot abuse his or her authority either.


I have to say that insubordination is a serious offense that can cost the employee their job. Refusing to do what a supervisor asks is really how you define insubordination, and it can cost you your job because a manager has to have a certain amount of respect from his subordinates in order to effectively manage a group.

It is similar to a parent child relationship. If a parent asks a child to do something that he or she requires and the child refuses then the parent should punish the child because the parent has to have respect from the child in order to parent the child properly.

If not the child is going to do whatever the child wants and the consequences will be disastrous. The same thing could be said of an employee that is allowed to get away with not following the rules. Not only is his work performance declining but so it the morale of the group because they don’t understand why rules apply to them, but not to others that challenge the rules.

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