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Employee Insubordination: A Guide for Leaders

One of the most difficult things that a human resources professional has to handle is insubordination. Unlike other offenses in the company handbook, which can sometimes end up as a misunderstanding, insubordination at work is a hundred percent intentional.

As a leader, you need to keep your employees in check and make sure that they are following or performing their job duties. If not addressed, the people in your organization could ruin the business.

What is Insubordination?

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Insubordination, by definition, is the direct refusal to perform and reasonable action requested by a manager or supervisor.

The middle part of the definition is important. An employer can categorize the rule violation as insubordination if the requested action is reasonable, ethical and logical. What’s more, the employee must understand the request completely yet still refuse to obey the order.

Here’s an example: let’s say you have an employee in your organization that is responsible for cleaning the workstations in your office. You asked them to wipe down the desks. If the worker blatantly refuses to perform the action that’s within their job duties, you could consider this as insubordination.

This, of course, can get tricky if the employee has a good reason not to perform the task. If the worker, for instance, is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, such as coughing, then they may have a valid reason for not wiping down the desks. If this is the case, the employee should inform the manager why they can’t perform the job rather than simply saying “no” to the task.

Differentiating Insubordination, Misconduct and Insolence

Some employers confuse insubordination with other offenses, such as misconduct and insolence. This is primarily because insubordination can result in the two mentioned rule violations if the worker keeps being disobedient.

Insolence occurs when a worker is disrespectful to a supervisor or a manager by mocking them, making fun of them, giving them the middle finger and swearing at them. They’re essentially undermining an individual’s authority with inappropriate behavior.

Then, there’s misconduct. This happens when an offense violates more significant rules, such as a harassment policy or a federal law. Misconduct is a step above insubordination and insolence. It requires disciplinary action (and legal action depending on the violation) as quickly as possible. Your company should have a code of conduct, an employee handbook or other similar document that goes over what is and is not misconduct.

How Can Employee Insubordination Ruin a Business

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The insubordination of one employee can bring stress and frustration to co-workers and managers. Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

An insubordinate employee can bring down an organization that worked hard to get where it is right now.

Let’s look at the probable consequences in closer detail:

Customer and Client Dissatisfaction

The actions of an insubordinate worker can negatively impact customer relations. The lack of performance can undermine service and product quality, the appropriate follow-up to product or service issues and the timely production and delivery of goods and services.

Customers will feel undervalued and inconsequential. After all, a representative from the company is ignoring or refusing to meet their needs or requirements. If left unchecked, this could lead to loss of business — or worse, a court action.

Increase in Workplace Stress

The frustration that entry-level workers, middle management and executives may experience due to insubordination can result in emotional, interpersonal and intellectual well-being.

Fellow employees may feel that they’re taking on too much of the team’s burden. This can burn out hardworking people, pushing them to leave the organization.

Managers will also become less effective in their role due to their inability to manage the performance of the insubordinate worker. Eventually, the key executives of the business will become aware of the managers’ inability to change the performance of the problem employee for the better.

Tarnished Reputation

When a problem worker disrespects a leader publicly, other employees may start to view the leader as ineffective or incompetent. This reputation can negatively affect the leader’s status with business partners, board members, fellow executives and direct reports.

Another consequence is that other employees may start to do acts of insubordination (assuming that there will be minor repercussions for doing so). This is a scenario wherein the actions of a single employee can instigate a chain reaction that encourages other workers to adopt a similarly disrespectful attitude.

Degradation of Morale

The attitude of the insubordinate employee, along with their lack of productivity, can trouble other members of the team. The morale of those who are still on the team has to complete their work and pick up the slack of their disrespectful colleague.

Another scenario is that the diligent employees will become angry, resentful and frustrated. These negative feelings can compound if the workers interpret the continued employment of the problem “team member” as a sign of special treatment.

Reduced Workforce Productivity

An employee who intentionally refuses or disregards a leader’s legitimate directives can cut down the overall productivity of a team.

If an insubordinate team member, for instance, refuses to meet the deadlines, their co-workers may have a hard time performing and completing the project in a timely fashion. The same is true if the problem worker is habitually late or if he willfully disregards company procedures, policies or processes.

If this trend continues, the business will suffer from lost productivity, delayed deliveries, lost sales and contractual penalties that will undermine company earnings.

Tips on Managing Employee Insubordination

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Tip: coach the insubordinate employee before you do something as drastic as termination. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat dot com from Pexels

Insubordinate employees are a poison in any organization. The obvious resolution here would be to get rid of the “cancer” on the team by coming up with the necessary insubordination write up and serving the termination letter.

Before you say, “you’re fired” to the problem worker, here are some things you should keep in mind:

Provide as Much Support as You Can

Before you initiate something as drastic as termination, think about the support that you could offer to turn things around. A couple of examples include coaching and counseling.

Never Lose Your Cool

Regardless of what the employee does or doesn’t do, you should keep a cool head. You have to assume that this problem worker will use your missteps to advance their cause.

Try to Figure Out the Root of the Problem

Arriving at the root cause may not resolve the insubordination, but this may help you assess whether the issue still has a solution.

Don’t Take the Insubordination Personally

The bad attitude of the employee is a reflection of them, not you. Taking the matter personally will just make you more frustrated and angry, which will exacerbate the already terrible situation.

Have a Sincere Conversation with the Insubordinate Employee

If the worker is successfully on track to getting sacked, straight up inform the employee — no sugarcoating, tiptoeing or dillydallying. A sincere, one-on-one and heart-to-heart discussion may just be the ticket to provoke an attitude adjustment and slap the worker back to reality.

Continue Doing Your Job

Insubordinate workers are a complete headache to be around. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should just take a few steps back and leave them alone to their devices. As a leader of the organization, your job is to face that nasty employee head on. You shouldn’t scamper in fear and let them stop you from doing your best.

Preventing Employee Insubordination

The adage, “prevention is better than a cure” applies even to the issue of insubordination.

Here are a couple of key actions you could practice to prevent this problem from happening in your organization:

Listen to Your Workers

Some cases of insubordination are due to genuine disagreements between workers and employers about the right course of action. Have a communicative and open relationship with your employees, which can also foster camaraderie in the workplace. And be receptive when they counter-argue or voice their concerns.

Establish Clear Boundaries

Let employees know your limits from the beginning. Doing so will give them a better sense of what they need to do in the organization.

Employee insubordination can be a nightmare to any leader. So take steps to manage this unpleasant behavior right away. Acting too little, too late can harm employee morale and prevent the organization from achieving success.

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