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Insubordination includes refusing boss’s instructions and disrespectful no-verbal gestures. Take appropriate actions ranging from warning letter (free sample) to termination in a way to ensure that your are legally protected.

Insubordination Definition

Insubordination at the workplace refers to an employee who refuses to obey a direct order from a supervisor or higher-ups. Here are some examples:

  1. refusal to obey a supervisor’s instruction or command
  2. showing disrespect to supervisor in the form of vulgar or profane language
  3. mocking, disputing or ridiculing management’s decisions
  4. non-verbal gestures expressing dissatisfaction, such as eye-rolling for disrespect
  5. non-performance

Insubordination in the workplace is something that occurs regardless of culture, teamwork, ethics or camaraderie among employees. There may always be a few employees with bad attitudes and who refuse to perform the work they signed up for.

Insubordination could be a ground for termination. However, before terminating an insubordinate employee, you must ensure that she is aware of your company’s policies in this regard. Also ensure that your human resource staff have clearly defined what constitutes insubordination in the employee handbook or during employee orientation. Otherwise, the offending employee may claim ignorance and may even have an upper hand.

How to identify insubordination

Here are the key characteristics of insubordinate employee. Let’s say, some order was given to an employee, and

  1. She never followed through intentionally, or
  2. She understood instructions but refused to comply, or
  3. She either outright refused to conduct a task or
  4. She didn’t perform as required

To avoid confusions, your human resource department should include specific examples of insubordination in your company’s employee handbooks so that all the employees know what lines not to cross.

What is not insubordination

There are instances of workplace conflicts or misunderstanding, which may not be an insubordination, such as an employee,

  1. failed to complete a task because she didn’t understand any instructions
  2. didn’t follow through an instruction for it goes against ethics or legality. She did’t follow an instruction as that said task is unsafe or would put her in imminent danger. In such cases, she must express her concerns to her direct supervisor or some another member of management.
  3. In her private conversation, she conveyed why a direct order was not satisfied.

Handling insubordination


You have many options to respond, ranging from minor disciplinary actions to immediate termination. The type of response you take depends entirely upon you and your management.

You could respond with various form of disciplinary actions.

One way could be to send the employee concerned home for the day and to give her a warning not to display such behavior again. Another way could be to suspend her for a few days.

Another could be to either provide or recommend her for counseling in case she is going through some personal problems or substance abuse issues.

Finally, you have the option of firing the employee. However, before firing someone, take some time to cool off. If possible, avoid terminating someone on the spot.

Your employee handbook should clearly define insubordination policy. But there could be exceptions. For example, verbal or written warning might be appropriate for first time infractions, especially for minor cases.

However, please be aware that a light response to a major insubordination instance sent a negative message to all the employees.

At the same time, a harsh response to minor instances may lead to decreased morale and dissatisfaction among employees. Hence, you should use good judgement based on each situation.

Termination as an option

Termination may be the most appropriate response in cases where you notice a series of patterns over time and the employee concerned not mending her ways despite repeated warnings.

You find that the employee concerned offering multiple excuses and not apologizing for any missed deadlines or incomplete tasks.

Another pattern could be that the employee concern doesn’t take responsibility for her actions and is, rather, putting blames on others.  You find her blatantly disregarding work schedules by consistently being late for work or leaving early without informing.

In above cases, termination is the right response.

Further action after termination

You should be prepared for a response when you need to terminate someone for insubordination. You should be aware that your termination decision can be challenged in a court of law.

Hence, you should be able to demonstrate a direct refusal of a specific order and that the employee understood the instructions but she refused to comply.

You should be careful to apply insubordination policy, as outlined in your employee handbook, consistently and without any favouritism.

How to prevent insubordinate behaviour

Clear and effective communication is the best way to avoid insubordinate behavior at workplace. Your managers and supervisors should be well-versed in clearly communicating with their subordinates for:

  1. who is supposed to do what
  2. how, when and where that should that be done, and
  3. how the performance would be measured

While giving orders, your supervisor should ask the employee concerned if she has understood instructions and whether she has any questions. Her acceptance of the task, even through verbal communication, confirms that she understand and would obey the order.

There could instances when a supervisor issue unreasonable order or have impossible performance metrics for employees to meet. Hence, it is important to hear both sides and use your best judgment to respond appropriately.

Harsh work condition or mistreatment could be another reason for insubordinate behavior. For example, some employee is asked to perform duties meant for two employees and she refuses to follow some order.

Hence, you should listen to the feedback your valued employees, identify reasons for conflicts at the workplace and put appropriate measures to prevent insubordinate behavior at the workplace.

Sample Insubordination Warning Letter

A letter giving warning for insubordination serves two purpose:

  1. The employee gets clear understanding that her behaviour is not acceptable and is in violation of company policy
  2. You can keep the letter as a reference for future in any lawsuit or unemployment dispute claim by the employee

You should keep your letter brief, stating the fact, and clearly expressing your concerns and consequences to the employee. You should clearly document the incidence of bad behaviour with dates and names of other personas involved, if any. Your letter should clearly explain the consequences to her in case she doesn’t change her behaviour and attitude. You should write the letter on the company letter-head and send that as an email attachment.

Here is a sample that would help you get started in case you need such a letter.

/*Your company letterhead*/

Date: 14 July 2018
Subject: Feedback for misconduct in the office
CC: Human Resource department


Yesterday, on 13 July 2018, during weekly team performance review meeting, your behaviour was disrespectful and disruptive. While I was trying to talk to you, you not only rolled your eyes, interrupted me several times and finally shouted, “F___ it, you are mediocre people and don’t understand what I am saying.”. You also sighed loudly when Kris tried to speak with you about your concerns.

You behaved in a similar way in our earlier team meeting on 1st July, during which you raised your voice to Kris when he asked you about certain tasks that you were supposed to finish off.

Your frequent outburst is disrupting to everyone in the company and is against the productive and collegial work environment that we have strived to build in the company over the years.

To impress the seriousness of your misconduct, you are being suspended for three (3) days, effective immediately. You will report to the office on 18th Jul at 10 am. Hope this time off will give you an opportunity to reflect on your behaviour and consider making positive changes in your professional conduct.

Let me also make it clear that if you abrasive behaviour continues, we will be left with no choice but to dismiss you from your full-time employment position.


/*Your company letterhead*/

Do you need help in dealing with insubordination?

Are you looking to handle insubordination at your workplace?

We can help you craft the appropriate response, while ensuring you remain compliant with the law. We will also protect you legally if your response to an employee is challenged in any court of law.

Click here to reach-out to us.

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