Responding to Insubordination in the Workplace

Workplace insubordination is a serious issue. Like a virus, it circulates through a firm, leaving a trail of frustration, toxicity, and unproductiveness in its wake. It can damage workplace relationships, spread dissatisfaction, and impact overall morale.

Insubordination is deliberate defiance or a refusal to perform reasonable, required duties. These are some tell-tale signs:

  • Disrespecting authority.
  • Refusing to accept constructive criticism.
  • Disregarding company policies, including background checks or medical exams.
  • Lying or stealing.
  • Committing acts of sabotage.

Responding incorrectly to insubordination carries legal liability. In addition, suspending an employee without carefully documenting the situation and implementing ethical disciplinary procedures may result in discrimination or malpractice suits.

Remain Calm and Professional

Instead of reacting to insubordination, remain calm and respond to it. Do not take it personally. Remember, insubordination may signal a deeper problem at home or the workplace. Be willing to listen to your employees.

Address the Situation Immediately

Deal with the problem immediately before the situation festers and gets out of hand. When appropriate, investigate so you can confront the employee with an accurate chronology of events. (This information is for your records as well as for HR’s.)

Certain types of insubordination constitute gross misconduct, which is often grounds for immediate suspension. Other times, “insubordination” is merely miscommunication, misunderstanding, or the effect of a “bad day.” In these instances, an informal chat will do—especially if your employee has a history of hard work and above-the-line conduct.

Help the employee overcome obstacles to improvement. Ultimately, your goal is to correct the problem while helping your employee grow.

Implement an Appropriate Disciplinary Process

A reasonable disciplinary process is the key to correcting insubordination. Ultimately, you should help your employees improve and stay on your team. Except in the case of gross misconduct, the most common disciplinary steps are these:

  • Verbal warning—sometimes, a verbal check-in addresses and closes the situation.
  • First written warning—the first written warning must outline the inappropriate behavior and define the timeline for expected improvement. It must also delineate the consequences of uncorrected behavior.
  • Final written warning—this step is the employee’s last opportunity to self-correct.
  • Dismissal—dismissal becomes the final step if the employee fails to improve.


In case an employee circles back with accusations of discrimination, having everything documented could circumvent an ugly legal battle. Carefully maintain an accurate record of the employee’s behavior, your conversations and responses, and the measures you laid out for them. Keep a copy for yourself, and send another copy to HR.

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