The Meaning of Insubordination

Anyone who has tried to lead a workforce has invariably met his critics. Employees who exhibit an unwillingness to follow the lead of their superiors engage in insubordinate behavior. This insubordination may take an active or passive form, and may be grounds for corrective action or even termination. If not countered by leadership, insubordination weakens an organization's effectiveness and increases tension within the workplace.

  1. Willful Disregard

    • Insubordination is constituted by an employee's refusal to carry out an order. Such refusal may be direct or active or passive in nature. Active insubordination occurs when an employee openly refuses to follow directives that a supervisor gives. Passive insubordination may be more difficult to identify and document. If an employee willingly receives directives yet routinely fails to act on these directives, he is practicing passive insubordination. With each of these two types of insubordination, an employee expresses a willful disregard to fulfill his essential job duties.

    Discipline Program

    • For legal protection, an organization must adopt a formal discipline program in order to establish the meaning of the term "insubordination". Due to a variety of factors, different organizations may define "insubordination" differently. For example, within a white collar environment, a remark contained within an email may be deemed insubordination. However, in a blue collar environment, vulgar remarks may fly around the workplace on a daily basis without any person taking offense. Thus, in order for an employer to brand an employee as behaving in an insubordinate manner, the employer should define such behavior within the context of a discipline program. This program should contain step-by-step corrective measures, which will identify behavior that is insubordinate in nature as well as endeavor to correct it.


    • Abusive language or actions typically qualify as examples of insubordination. Depending on its extremity, such abusiveness may result not only in corrective action but also termination. Due to workplace safety concerns, abusive language or behavior must be taken seriously and may even require the involvement of law enforcement officials. Whether or not such abusiveness is directly discouraged in employee handbooks or other workplace literature, an employee's indulgence in abusive language or behavior constitutes insubordination, since all employees are aware that such behavior is unacceptable within society at large.

    Scope of Responsibility

    • Failure to perform duties associated with one's job description as well as exceeding the scope of one's authority may be acts of insubordination. When a person is hired as an employee of a company, he usually receives clear instruction regarding responsibilities associated with his job. As he continues his employment, his scope of responsibility may be expanded. If however, he begins to operate outside of the scope of his responsibility, his behavior may be deemed as insubordinate. On occasion, public officials become mired in controversies regarding the misuse of taxpayer funds, which investigators discover are being used to pay for lavish lunches or unauthorized stays at expensive hotels. Despite the importance of their positions, such public officials act outside of the scope of their responsibility if they misuse funds in this way.


    • Mitigating factors, such as an employer's failure to provide workplace accommodations, may be cited by an employee to discount allegations of insubordination made by his employer. Such mitigating factors can include an employee's past performance. If an employee has a spotless attendance record and no history of prior infractions, management may be more willing to overlook a minor transgression than if he is a repeat offender. Other mitigating factors may include family problems (such as a divorce, or illness within the family), coaxing by a peer or even an employee's specialized skills that render him an especially valuable asset to his organization.

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  • Photo Credit "Ops-meeting", by Andrea Guerra (Source:

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