Employee Insubordination

Read our guide and prevent disrespect from poisoning your workplace

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Insubordination is a common issue faced by employers throughout Canada. While it is a popular problem, insubordination can be difficult to deal with.

As an employer you should establish that insubordinate behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace by implementing effective disciplinary procedures and policies.

In this guide we’ll discuss what insubordination is, the different forms it can take, and how to successfully manage it.

What Does Insubordination Mean?

Insubordination is when someone intentionally refuses to carry out an instruction.

Insubordination at work is when an employee doesn’t listen to their employer when asked to do a task. When an employee engages in insubordination in the workplace it can create a toxic environment where the authority of management is undermined.

The toxic environment created by insubordinate behaviour can pose numerous problems for employers. One common problem is when an employee refuses to listen to the employer in front of their colleagues, other people may start to act the same way.

In order to stop insubordinate conduct before it escalates, it is useful to review some examples of insubordination.

What is Considered Insubordination in the Workplace?

Some of the most common examples of insubordination include when:

  • An employee refuses to perform a task when ordered to do so by their manager.
  • An employee refuses to show up for work.
  • An employee fails to ask for permission before taking vacation or a leave of absence.
  • An employee refuses to remain on shift or at work.

What are the Effects of Insubordination?

If employee insubordination goes unchecked, some possible effects are:

  • Low staff morale and production rates.
  • An unhealthy or toxic workplace.
  • Loss of clients.
  • Reduced employee retention.
  • Workplace conflict.
  • Company brand and reputation damage.

Is Insubordination the Same as Insolence?

Insubordination is not the same as insolence. Insolence is when an employee engages in disrespectful or abusive language or conduct toward their employer.

Whilst insubordination is the actions of an employee, insolence can be carried out by both employer and employee.

While it is important to review what insubordination is, it is just as vital to understand what insubordination is not.

To manage any workplace insubordination correctly, it’s crucial you understand what isn’t considered insubordination.

What Is Not Considered Insubordination?

In order to know when employees should be disciplined, employers must fully understand what actions are not considered insubordination. Penalizing staff incorrectly can result in problems for the employer, such as decreased morale, retention, and employee trust.

Below are examples of behaviour that is not considered insubordination:

  • An employee refuses to perform a task that they are not required to do (something outside of their regular duties).
  • An employee misunderstands directions resulting in their failure to perform a task.
  • An employee refuses to perform an unethical, unsafe, or illegal task.
  • An employee refuses to perform a task issued by someone who does not have authority over them, such as a coworker in the same position.
  • An employee does not agree with a change to their hours of work or compensation.

Sometimes, an employee’s lack of obedience has a reasonable explanation. For example, if an employee refuses to undergo a task that is unsafe, the employee’s right to refuse unsafe work is protected by applicable health and safety legislation.

In these situations, the employer must work with the employee to rectify the situation instead of disciplining them.

When Does Insubordination in the Workplace Occur?

Employee insubordination in the workplace occurs most frequently when there is resistance or dissent from staff. Resistance occurs when the employee refuses to carry out an employer’s instruction. While this form of insubordination is disrespectful, it also hurts productivity of staff and can impact company performance.

Insubordination at work can take place when there is dissent from employees. This type of behaviour often occurs in unhappy employees or employees who are on their way out (either by way of resignation or termination). This type of insubordination can result in the disgruntled employee gossiping about management and spreading rumors, which can cause the insubordination to spread.

Gross Insubordination

One type of employee insubordination that can occur is gross insubordination. Gross insubordination is insubordinate behaviour by an employee with an aggravating factor.

For example, an employee may be found to be insubordinate if they partially defy an order from their superior and later correct their actions. Alternatively, an employee who deliberately refuses to obey their manager and challenges their authority, especially in the presence of their coworkers, could be viewed as grossly insubordinate.

As an employer, you need to be able to prove insubordination before being able to discipline correctly.

How to Prove Insubordination

In order to prove employee insubordination, employers must be able to show that:

  • The employee refused an instruction to carry out a reasonable task.
  • The employee fully understood the instruction being asked of them, and chose to refuse it knowing the consequences.

It is important that employers establish boundaries at work so employees fully understand when they are being insubordinate.

For example, many informal workplaces with start-up cultures may have a hard time establishing these boundaries, making employees unsure of the line between laid back behaviour and insubordination.

How to Deal with Insubordination

The main ways to deal with employee insubordination are communication and progressive discipline, up to and including termination of employment.

If the employee insubordination is not serious or a one-time incident, the employer has a duty to utilize their progressive discipline procedures before terminating the employee with cause.

If their behavior continues, you may have to start your disciplinary procedure. Possible disciplinary actions can be:

  • Verbal warning.
  • Written warning.
  • Final written warning.
  • Suspension.

The disciplinary actions taken by the employer must have the ultimate aim of correcting the employee’s insubordinate behaviour. Any disciplinary action you take, must match the actions of the employee.

When dealing with employee insubordination, it is important for employers to remember their duties under applicable human rights legislation.

Is Insubordination Grounds for Termination?

Employees can be fired for insubordination. However, whether the termination is without cause or with cause will depend on the individual circumstances. It’s rare that a single event of insubordination justifies termination.

Without Cause Termination

You can terminate someone’s employment without cause if they’re guilty of insubordinate behaviour– regardless of how serious.

However, you must ensure they receive their full termination entitlements if you choose to let them go. If you terminate someone without cause, you aren’t legally required to provide them with a reason – although it’s good practice to provide them with one.

With Cause Termination

In order to terminate an employee with cause for insubordination, the employer has a duty to implement progressive discipline and work with the employee to repair their behaviour.

If the employee continues to engage in insubordinate behaviour after the employer has utilized their multi-tier progressive discipline procedure, the employer may choose to terminate the employee with cause.

However, even after progressive discipline, the courts may still find that a with cause termination was not justified based on other factors surrounding the incident(s) such as length of service and past disciplinary record.

The threshold for establishing a with cause termination is very high and often difficult to prove as the employee is deprived of any notice or pay in-lieu of termination.

How Can Employers Prevent Insubordination?

While you can never really predict how your employees will behave, the best ways to prevent insubordination in the workplace are as follows:

Set Boundaries

When employees understand boundaries and reporting structures within the workplace, they are clear on what they should and should not do. When clear boundaries are established through comprehensive workplace policies and employee handbooks, conflict is less likely to arise.

Communicate with Employees

Instances of insubordination in the workplace often stem from a genuine miscommunication or misunderstanding. By promoting open and honest conversations at work, employers have the chance to find amicable solutions to issues before they get out of control.

Ample communication not only includes the employer explaining their side of the story, but also givesing employees a chance to provide feedback and work through issues productively.

Follow the Law

When employers follow all applicable human rights, employment standards and health and safety laws, there is less of a chance that conflict will arise.

Get Advice on How to Address Insubordination with BrightHR

As an employer, it is important to establish, maintain, and enforce policies and practices to promote a workplace free from insubordination.

If you fail to address or ignore situations of employee insubordination, you may be at risk of losing clients, valuable employees, and enabling a toxic workplace.

If you need assistance with drafting employee handbooks, workplace policies or progressive discipline procedures, or even looking to update current ones, our

BrightAdvice service allows you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have.

Contact us on 18882204924 or book a demo today.

Share this article

More on employee conduct

Employees of different genders working together

Workplace Relationships

Workplace relationships are often not encouraged. However, many people meet their partners at work. Its not uncommon for co-workers to develop ...

Final Warning

Issuing warnings or warning letters is a very important part of the disciplinary process in the workplace. It is important that you discipline ...

Employee Warning Letter

It is important that you do not overlook or tolerate employees who do not follow the rules of your business. The most common way to discipline ...

Breaks at Work

In the workplace, employees are entitled to take breaks. It is important for employers to know the laws regarding breaks in the workplace to ensure ...

Workplace Conflicts

Workplace conflict is unavoidable in any work environment. It can happen instantaneously and without warning. Not resolving conflict can also lead to ...

A meeting that has turned in a conflict

Conflict management

Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable in every workplace; handling conflicts is critical to becoming a successful leader. Managing conflict is ...

Data Protection

As the world becomes more digital, businesses collect and analyze important personally identifiable information on their employees, clients and ...

Social Media Policy

Social media is a great tool that all employers can utilize to advance their business. Whether you’re creating a strong public presence or using it ...

Bullying in the Workplace

Managing emails, keeping up to date with personal situations and communicating with clients are all benefits employees gain from mobile phones in the ...