Insubordination Definition and How to avoid it?

Conflicts and disputes are common in the workplace, whether between employers and employees or between employees themselves. Some issues are due to the personalities of people involved, and some are due to issues and principles. Some are also due to misunderstanding, either due to lack of communication, or other factors.

Respect with each other, however, must be paramount and must be observed at all times. Lack of respect will result in the breakdown of good relationships, lack of professionalism, workplace conflicts, and toxicity in the diverse working environment. Rules and proper decorum must be followed.

Among the most common problem in the workplace, especially with regards to respect, is the problem of insubordination. What exactly is insubordination?

What is Insubordination?

Insubordination may refer to several things. The most common and familiar is the refusal of an employee or employees to obey a command, order, demand, or directive coming from a superior officer, executive, or supervisor. It is considered insubordination if it is an official order, and the refusal to obey was due to blatant disregard of the said authority.

The disrespect shown to superiors and authorities can also be considered insubordination. The disrespect may be in form of offensive, vulgar language, disrespecting cultures, discriminating against others, and various forms of mocking authorities, and even bullying and harassing them.

Another type of insubordination is when an employee mocks, not the authorities or superiors per se, but their directives, decisions, and memos. Questioning them in a vulgar, mocking way, and outside of what is considered acceptable and proper, can also be considered as insubordination.

What are the negative effects of insubordination?

Insubordination can have deleterious effects on the relationship among employees, as well as in the working place and environment in general. The most immediate harmful effect of insubordination is that it will breed disrespect among employees, especially if it remains unpunished and unchecked.

Mutual respect is the foundation of a good relationship, especially at work. Lack of respect will increase the possibility of conflict and dispute in the workplace. It will, most likely, result in a toxic working environment, and reduced productivity.

It might also lead to a breakdown of professionalism among rank and file. Order and hierarchy are important in the workplace, and unreasonable disobedience, as well as lack of respect due to insubordination, may eventually result in employees being disrespectful of authorities and higher-ups. Future directives may not be followed or enforced.

Insubordination, and rumors about it, may reflect badly on the image of the company. Lack of discipline among employees and workers will give the company a bad reputation, which may result in the loss of potential clients, investors, or partners. An even worse outcome might be public backlash due to bad publicity, resulting in reduced sales and profit.

How to identify insubordination in the workplace?

There are some tell-tale signs that an employee is being insubordinate and might be submitted to disciplinary action. Among them are:


When an employee refused to comply with a directive or order, without proper reason or explanation, it is a sure sign that the employee is being insubordinate. All employees must comply with the directive and order unless it is illegal and unethical. Failure to do so, without proper justification, is a clear sign of insubordination and must be dealt with accordingly.

Disrespectful employee

An employee that shows disregard for authorities, shows mockery, could be guilty of grave misconduct and, be subjected to disciplinary action. It is the same for those who do not observe proper rules and decorum in their relationship with the higher-ups, or doing, showing, and exhibiting grave misconduct in their presence.

A disrespectful employee, does not easily translate into an insubordinate one. Proper discretion and good judgment must be exercised by authorities in dealing with the question with regards to the attitude and conduct of an employee. One may also be guilty of unethical conduct without being guilty of insubordination.

There times, however, that acts of insubordination are accompanied by acts of disrespect. With regards to conduct, the persistence of bad behavior, after being issued a directive or memo against it, could be construed as insubordination. Discretion and judgment, however, must be exercised properly.

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When is it Not Insubordination?

There are times and situations, however, when acts of employees may not be construed as insubordination. Among these situations are the following:

It is not insubordination if the failure to comply or execute a task is due to lack or failure of communication. Miscommunication does happen, and oftentimes, unclear, vague, or ambiguous directives may result in a misunderstanding that may lead eventually to failure to comply.

As such, there is no blatant disregard for any authority. Failure to comply was not the result of intentional disobedience, and there was no malice in the actions that eventually led to failure to execute the task. There was no conscious effort to undermine the higher-ups or authorities.

If there was some hesitation on the part of the employee to follow the order or command, due to the seeming ethical and legal complications that may arise. Though an employee may be at fault for not inquiring with his superiors about the said issue, resulting in non-compliance, the action may not be construed as insubordination.

If an employee questions a directive, order, or task assigned to him, but does it within and by following the rules of the company, then that is not insubordination. Proper rules and inquiries regarding questions about directives, however, must be observed accordingly and diligently. An employee following those rules as prescribed, can not be considered insubordinate.

How to prevent insubordination

Here are some steps to prevent insubordination in working place.

Punishing the insubordinate

One way to mitigate insubordination, if not to prevent it at all in the workplace, is to punish the violators accordingly. Punishment varies depending on the severity of the violation. It can range from reprimand to some kind of disciplinary action. Consistent violators and insubordinate may be subjected to summary dismissal proceedings, and eventually terminated.

Punishment is important because it will restore order and discipline among the ranks. It will instill in them the idea that any wrongdoing, insubordination particularly, will be dealt with swiftly and accordingly punished. By making them answerable and responsible for their actions, you also instill in them values of professionalism and integrity.

Strict observance of rules

Everyone must adhere to rules and principles of ethical conduct, both in general and as prescribed in the rules of conduct or employees handbook of the company. This is to ensure compliance and professionalism among the rank and file. Everyone must know their proper place in the company, and must act properly.

A company that adheres to rules, and instills in the employees the proper ethical conduct, professionalism, and integrity will likely never have incidences of insubordination.

Have good communication

Aside from employees behaving badly, insubordination can also be attributed to a lack of good and proper communication. Having good communication with employees, as well as being clear with the directives and orders, may minimize the occurrence of insubordination, if not prevent it at all.

In having communication though, make sure that proper decorum and rules in addressing the authorities and higher-ups must be observed at all times. This is to maintain respect with regards to authorities, as well as maintain overall professionalism within the ranks.

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Insubordination in the workplace is a serious matter, and issues surrounding it must be resolved immediately. The insubordinate must be submitted to disciplinary action, and, in severe cases, even to summary dismissal proceedings. This is to ensure compliance among employees, as well as maintain professionalism in the ranks.

In dealing with the issues and violators, a great amount of caution, good discretion, and good judgment must be exercised.

Insubordination Definition


How to prevent insubordination?

  • Punishing the insubordinate
  • Strict observance of rules
  • Have good communication

About the author

Jess Man

Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Diversity Advisor at Diversity Social. Jessica has over 10 years of working with and advising employers to be more diverse and create an inclusive working environment.
Jessica's experience spans private and non-profit sectors in multiple industries.
Jessica's expertise experience is beyond Diversity & Inclusion, she is also a certified professional IT recruiter in Data & Analytics, Database administration, Artificial Intelligence area.