Misunderstandings and personality clashes are common in the workplace. When a boss and a subordinate have a dispute, the boss usually wins by virtue of her superior position. However, disagreeing with your boss is not the same thing as insubordination.
While the word "insubordinate" often refers to anyone disrespectful or defiant, the workplace definition is more explicit. Insubordination usually means one of two situations: An employee refuses a direct order from a superior or the employee and superior have a confrontation. Insubordination has steep consequences, because the employee is essentially breaching his employment contract, refusing to work for the company.
Refusing an Order
Officially, insubordination results when an employee has received and understood a direct order, but refuses to obey. Either the employee has made an explicit statement of refusal or simply did not complete the task. Even if the employee thinks the order is unfair or improper, it’s still his responsibility to comply. If he believes that fulfilling the order is illegal or will immediately endanger him or others, he should first complete the work, then later report the issue.
Not all confrontations or arguments are considered insubordination. If the superior provokes the confrontation or you are alone, away from co-workers and customers, insubordination may not be found. In general, avoid profanity in the workplace unless it is considered standard practice. Keep in mind that a private disagreement can become insubordination if you brag to co-workers or refuse to settle the disagreement.
Everyone makes mistakes, even supervisors. An employee with a grievance over orders and procedures has the right to voice it without retaliation as long as he follows correct procedures. He should not hesitate to report anything illegal or discriminatory. However, protected activity does not give an employee the right to openly taunt his supervisor or refuse to follow orders. Never act upon emotion, but substantiate any report with evidence.
For a business to work, employees must follow orders, complete tasks and respect their supervisors. Insubordination policies let employees know who is in charge and give management written backing for any disciplinary actions they deem necessary. Business Owner’s Toolkit offers this sample insubordination policy: “A refusal to obey a supervisor's order or a lack of respect directed toward that supervisor will subject that employee to the company's ... discipline program.”
When you think an employee is being insubordinate, carefully consider all the actions involved before punishing the employee. Discuss how the order was issued, who issued it and the employee's understanding of the order. Sometimes orders are simply misunderstood and a simple discussion can get the relationship back on track.
Consider other workplace factors that could have caused unwitting disobedience. Decide if the order was appropriate and if the subordinate has a valid reason to disobey. Finally, assess the impact of the employee's conduct on the work environment; it may not be worth pursuing if that action will do more damage than the initial situation.