Insubordination: Definition, Resolutions, Letter Template


Insubordination is the act of directly or indirectly refusing to perform a duty, task, legal action, ethical action or process that has been given as clear directive from a manager, superior or leader.

A common misconception is that insubordination is when an employee verbally insults, disrespects, or shows “pushback” toward a manager or superior. That is considered insolence, which is not the same as insubordination.

Misconduct is another form of misbehavior that is confused with insubordination. Misconduct is when an employee is acting with criminal, harassing, or unethical behavior.

All three of these types of issues are normally covered within a business code of conduct, handbook, or other human resource guidelines.

Insubordination Definition

Insubordination or insubordinate behavior is the act of willfully disobeying an order of one’s superior. Refusing to perform an action that is unethical or illegal is not insubordination; neither is refusing to perform an action that is not within the scope of authority of the person issuing the order.

What Is Considered Insubordination in the Workplace?

When a request is made on behalf of a superior, in order for it to be considered insubordination, the original request must be one that is of legal, ethical or reasonable nature.

If that is the case and the employee refuses to obey that request, through verbal or physical actions. Then the employee would be portraying insubordination. This verbal refusal of work or to perform on the job may be considered disobeying a valid authority figure in the workplace.

If the insubordinate employee passively refuses the request, such as openly ignoring the request, then the employee would still be portraying insubordination in the workplace.

Can You Be Fired for Insubordination?

Insubordination may be efficient enough evidence to provide immediate dismissal of the employee (or to be terminated or “fired”). Companies have employee handbooks, codes of conduct, and other disciplinary guides that are provided to each new hire during their training process. These are the assets that should be referenced when determining how insubordination is handled in the work environment.

Gross insubordination, which constitutes repeated employee handbook violations or repeated disrespectful behavior, may result in the discipline such as termination. Gross insubordination may apply to those who are unwilling to perform the official duties of their job. Or the use of abusive language on the job. Or the desire to be a difficult employee. All of which may result in immediate termination.

What If The Request Was Made by Someone Without Authority?

If an employee received a request by another employee, who is not their superior, and the request was dismissed, it is not considered insubordination. As long as the original request was not deemed unethical or illegal and it is not on behalf of a peer (a colleague or someone who lacks the authority of that employee), then denying the request is not considered insubordination.

Insubordinate behavior is normally constituted when the refusal to perform the official duties of the job is given to a supervisor, manager, boss, or superior worker. This repeated act to the supervisor is employee insubordination.

What Is Not Considered Insubordination?

In the U.S., many work cultures embrace conflict. The types of conflict they hope to embrace are those that present innovation and progress. If you, the employee, were to receive a request from your superior or employer, then disagree with that request and communicate your disagreement; that would be not be considered insubordination.

If your superior or employer, in that same work scenario, were to dismiss your disagreement and ask for you to complete the directed work, with you denying it; that would be considered insubordination.

What Type of Dismissal is Insubordination Considered?

When dismissal happens due to insubordination, it would be considered termination for poor performance. This type of termination is not considered wrongful termination. And performance may be justified or spoken to in the employment agreement signed on behalf of the employee during their acceptance of an employment offer.

Proving an Employee Has Been Insubordinate

The process for proving that an employee has been insubordinate would be the following:

1. Document the original request made by you, the superior.
2. Document the nature of which the employee refused your request.
3. Document any time or losses the business suffered through the insubordinate nature.
4. Write a formal insubordination letter communicating the conflict with terse simplicity and factual evidence.
5. File any formal paperwork your Human Resources department may have for employee conflicts.
6. Meet with your superior to discuss the insubordination, ensure that it has been documented by Human Resources, and develop a plan to move forward (conflict resolution).

Insubordination Resolution

All insubordination should be properly documented and submitted to your Human Resources team before attempting to resolve a conflict.

The steps to resolve insubordination are:

1. Schedule a meeting with the superior and employee.
2. Replay the insubordinate action in a retrospective manner.
3. Discuss what can be done to prevent insubordination in the future.
4. Discuss steps that can be taken for both the superior and the employee to improve collaboration.

Insubordination Letter Example

An insubordination letter is a letter of termination that is provided to an employee on behalf of a Human Resources team. These letters indicate the dismissal of the employee as well as an outline of the performance issues which caused the dismissal.

May 1st, 2020

Ryan Smith

Dear Mr. Smith —

This letter is intended to communicate management’s decision concerning the recommendation for strict disciplinary action, which includes the grounds for dismissal. This letter is to inform of you that dismissal may be decided upon, in the future, on behalf of management due to poor performance.

  • On 02/02/19, you were given the assignment to produce more than 100 new graphic design assets for our client, The New York Times. This assignment was given to you by your superior. You presented conflict and friction in the workplace wanting to dismiss this work. Which ultimately, you did not perform.
  • On 02/05/19, you were given formal written notice of these performance issues and were given a performance plan to resolve conflict and make progress.
It is expected that you will immediately address the situation and have discussions with both your peers regarding conflict resolution. Your superior will reach out to you to schedule time to create a plan going forward to address any further insubordination.

Human Resources

Insubordination in Military or Police

It's important to note that this article speaks only about the consequence of insubordinate behavior due to employee's actions in the modern workplace. If you are a service member of the military and you are wanting to learn about military law, you should learn more about military insubordination here.

If you are an officer of the law and looking to learn about insubordination as it pertains to one officer's refusal to perform a duty for their superior officer, you should learn about insubordination in the police force here.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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