Is serious insubordination grounds for dismissal?

Read our guide and prevent disrespect from poisoning your workplace

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, May 17, 2023

What is serious insubordination?

Serious insubordination is an example of gross misconduct where an employee refuses to follow sound instructions given by a supervisor or manager.

For it to be gross misconduct, the act must be so serious that it breaks any trust or confidence between a boss and their employee.

Normally, this will warrant a summary dismissal. Another term for this is “dismissal without notice”.

In the ideal workplace, all staff treat each other with respect. But sadly, every workplace comes with its problems, including employees who can prove troublesome for one reason or another.

What makes insubordinate behaviour “serious”?

Serious insubordination examples include:

  1. Rude behaviour.
  2. Aggressive behaviour.
  3. Threatening behaviour.

Of course, these terms are a bit vague. So how can you make it clear what these mean?

Your best bet is to set out the rules and standards of conduct in your workplace. Clarify what counts as serious insubordination.

Once you’ve got your policy, support it with a fair disciplinary procedure—in other words, how you’ll handle things if an incident occurs or if somebody makes a charge.

You should use your company’s employee handbook for setting out all this information. Make it clear that your list of examples in the handbook might not be exhaustive—that way you can deal with any unforeseen circumstances in the future. And of course, make sure you give all staff a copy when they start working for you.

If you update the handbook, give out new copies to all staff via email.

Where possible, act early

Of course, some examples of insubordinate behaviour in the workplace aren’t instantly acts of gross misconduct. There are plenty of cases in offices right now where a boss is “turning a blind eye” rather than flagging an employee’s conduct—be it rude or defiant.

It’s important that you deal with insubordination as soon as it occurs. At the first sign of any disrespect, rudeness, aggression, etc., you should take the employee to one side and clarify that you won’t accept their behaviour.

A simple chat about their conduct, along with a note for improvement not to re-offend (the note also acts as a record of the chat) might be enough to get a wayward worker back on track. Your leadership will also act as a deterrent for anyone else who was thinking about wilfully opposing an instruction.

On the other hand, if you let a difficult member of your staff get away with not following orders and being disrespectful to other staff and management, you risk creating a workplace where other staff become rude, and perhaps even verbally hostile.

Stopping any type of insubordination isn’t about removing the voice of your staff, though

You should run an open door policy so that your staff can talk to you if they’re unsure about their role or an order you’ve given them.

You might sometimes find that your staff can actually present a better alternative to what you asked them to do. But this isn’t the same as them defying you.

Your fair disciplinary procedure

Even though gross insubordination can lead to an instant dismissal, you must still go through a fair procedure.

If you don’t, the employee could make an unfair dismissal claim against you.

So, to avoid a needless employment tribunal, make sure you do the following:

  • Establish the facts of the case.
  • Ask any witnesses about the incident.
  • Invite the employee to a disciplinary hearing.
  • Hold the hearing.
  • Let them know the outcome of the hearing.
  • Give them the chance to appeal your verdict.

What else do I need to know?

When one of your staff won’t do something that’s illegal, it’s not insubordination. Although, this should be fairly obvious.

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