Organizational Wellness

Insubordination: Definition, Examples, and How to Address It

Apr 4, 2023
Last Updated Mar 11, 2024

It can be difficult to know how to handle workplace insubordination. After all, there are different acts of insubordination with varying levels of severity.  Then, in addition to the incident itself, you also have to look at what motivated the behavior, as that can shape the most appropriate way to address the situation. This means there’s no one-size-fits-all playbook to guide how an HR department should proceed in this situation. 

In order to figure out how to address insubordination, let’s start by discussing what insubordination is (and isn’t). Then let’s look at examples of insubordination in the workplace, and review strategies you can use to resolve the situation.

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What is Insubordination at Work?

Insubordination is an employee’s refusal to comply with a direct order by their supervisor. This type of refusal could be anything from disobeying direct instructions and exhibiting arguing with their manager to openly challenging authority, ignoring requests, or not following company policies and procedures. Tackling insubordination issues can improve employee relations and maintain and improve the wellbeing of your workforce.

Five Insubordination Examples

Examples of insubordination in the workplace can be active, like publicly disputing decisions from leadership teams. Insubordination can also take the form of passive-aggressive behavior like disrespectful body language — rolling eyes or not making eye contact when speaking with a supervisor, for example.

Take a look at five other examples of insubordination in the workplace:

  1. Refusing to Finish a Task

When employees actively refuse to complete their manager-assigned work within the allotted time — especially if it happens consistently — it’s blatant insubordination. More than that, leadership teams could interpret it as outright abandoning an employee’s duties.

  1. Intimidating, Harassing, or Abusing Staff Members

If an employee purposely insults a superior or colleague or calls anyone disrespectful names, they’re being insubordinate. This is also the case if a team member swears at anyone or uses another abusive language, especially if it has happened more than once. Gossiping about supervisors and peers also constitutes harassment, and can rise to the level of intimidation or abuse.

  1. Sabotaging Company Activities

If an employee is intentionally hampering a company project or trying to hinder their colleagues’ workflow, it’s considered insubordination. Other iterations include a staff member deliberately refusing to complete a work assignment, or going out of their way to slow its progress.

  1. Leaving Work Early Without Notice or Approval

When employees skip out of work unannounced or without approval, they exhibit insubordinate behavior. They’re refusing to follow company policies and procedures — essentially the purest form of employee insubordination — so HR and leadership teams are likely to become involved. 

  1. Not Showing Up for Work at All

Failing to come to work without giving any prior notice or obtaining a formal leave of absence makes an employee insubordinate. When an employee doesn’t show up for work at all, it’s viewed as a sign that they are no longer taking their job seriously.

Workplace infractions and insubordinate conduct are often easy to spot and understand, but others may require an explanation. Talk to your staff members about company-specific definitions of insubordination, so all team members know the behaviors that are considered “insubordinate” conduct.

What is Not Considered Insubordination

It’s important to note that insubordination is not the same as insensitivity, rudeness, insolence, or a poor attitude — these are all separate issues with their own solutions. Further, not all instances of insubordination are treated equally.

Try to refrain from punishing an employee for being “insubordinate” when they are only being assertive. Taking actions like asking questions about an assignment or voicing an opinion alternative to a colleague’s are not punishable offenses. In fact, HR and leadership teams should encourage workers to dive deeper into their understanding of their positions by engaging in these ways.

Causes and Consequences of Insubordination

So,what drives employees to be insubordinate? And what are the repercussions when it happens? These are important questions, and understanding the causes and consequences of insubordination is critical for effective eam management.

Causes of Insubordination

Lack of clear communication

When there's a lack of communication regarding specific instructions or a company's larger objectives, it can lead to employees disobeying orders without knowing it. Clear, concise communication can help prevent such situations.

Disagreements with management decisions

Even with good communication, some employees can still disagree with management decisions or company strategies. This can stem from a lack of trust or respect for leadership, or disagreement about the best direction for the company.

Personal conflicts

Not all examples of insubordinate behavior stem from something that happened at work. Stress and personal challenges at home can sometimes cause unprofessional behavior at work, including insubordination. 

Issues with workplace culture

Sometimes employees act out to demonstrate their discontent with a toxic or unsupportive workplace culture. If somebody believes their good work has gone unrecognized — such as feeling they were passed over for a promotion, for example — they may try to circumvent the management systems they no longer trust.

Consequences of Insubordination

Disruption of workflow

This kind of disruptive activity can interrupt the normal flow of operations. This can cause inefficiencies and a lack of productivity, driving delays that create additional stress for other team members.

Erosion of authority

Every time insubordination goes unaddressed, it can undermine management’s authority and lead to further problems among employees.

Negative impact on morale

The best work environments are positive, but witnessing or being involved in instances of insubordination is a surefire way to dampen the mood. It can demoralize employees and create tension in your workplace.

Legal and financial liability

In extreme cases — such as when insubordination leads to violence, harassment, or abuse — a company may face legal actions that result in financial losses. 

Damage to reputation

If there are persistent issues with insubordination word will get around. This can harm the organization's reputation internally and externally, potentially impacting client relationships and future hiring.

Eliminating insubordination is an essential part of building strong workplace ethics. Here’s what you can do to address this issue if it does arise.

How to Deal With Insubordination in the Workplace (8-Step Action Plan)

Handling insubordination requires a delicate balance of assertiveness, empathy, and clarity. Here is a structured action plan that HR leaders can follow to address and resolve incidents of employee insubordination effectively, ensuring the well-being of all parties involved and maintaining a positive work environment.

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Step 1: Immediate Documentation

Action: As soon as an incident of insubordination occurs, document the details accurately and objectively. Include the date, time, individuals involved, a factual description of the incident, and any witnesses.

Purpose: This ensures that you have a clear record of the event, which is crucial for any subsequent discussions or actions.

Step 2: Preliminary Assessment

Action: Evaluate the severity of the insubordination and consider any underlying factors that may have contributed to the employee's behavior. This can include work stress, personal issues, or misunderstandings about expectations.

Purpose: Understanding the context and severity helps in determining the most appropriate response.

Step 3: Private Discussion with the Employee

Action: Arrange a private meeting with the employee involved. Approach the conversation with openness and the intent to understand their perspective. Clearly explain why their behavior is considered insubordination and its impact on the team and organization.

Purpose: This meeting is an opportunity to hear the employee's side of the story, clarify expectations, and express the importance of respecting workplace norms and authority.

Step 4: Identify Solutions

Action: Discuss potential solutions and improvements with the employee. This could involve additional training, mediation, or adjustments in workload or responsibilities, depending on the root cause of the behavior.

Purpose: Collaboratively identifying solutions emphasizes the organization's support for the employee's success and wellbeing, rather than focusing solely on punitive measures.

Step 5: Establish Clear Consequences

Action: Clearly outline the consequences of continued insubordination, which might range from formal warnings to termination, depending on the company's policies and the severity of the behavior.

Purpose: Setting clear expectations and consequences for future behavior ensures the employee understands the seriousness of the situation and the importance of change.

Step 6: Create an Action and Follow Up Plan

Action: Document the agreed-upon action plan, including any steps the employee will take to improve their behavior and any support the organization will provide. Schedule follow-up meetings to review progress.

Purpose: Documentation and scheduled follow-ups keep both parties accountable and provide a clear framework for assessing improvements or further actions.

Step 7: Provide Support and Resources

Action: Offer resources such as counseling, training, or mediation to help the employee address any underlying issues or improve their skills in dealing with workplace challenges.

Purpose: Providing support and resources demonstrates the organization's commitment to the employee's growth and wellbeing, fostering a positive and supportive work environment.

Step 8: Review and Adjust as Necessary

Action: Regularly review the situation and the effectiveness of the action plan. Be prepared to adjust the plan as necessary based on the employee's progress and any new developments.

Purpose: Flexibility in the action plan allows the organization to respond to changes effectively, ensuring the long-term resolution of the issue.

Employee Insubordination Write-Up Template

This template can help you document instances of insubordination. It aids you in capturing all relevant details, creating a clear record for future reference. It can be adapted to fit the specific needs and policies of your organization.

Insubordination Report

Employee Information

  • Employee Name:
  • Position:
  • Department:
  • Supervisor:
  • Date of Incident:
  • Date of Write-Up:

Incident Details

  • Location of Incident:
  • Time of Incident:
  • Witnesses (if any):

Description of Insubordination

Provide a detailed description of the insubordination incident, including specific actions or behaviors exhibited by the employee that violated company policy or directives from supervisors. Include any verbal or written instructions that were not followed.

Previous Related Incidents

Note any previous incidents or warnings related to insubordination or related misconduct by the employee. Include dates and outcomes of previous discussions or disciplinary actions.

Impact on Team/Workplace

Describe the impact of the employee's insubordination on team dynamics, workplace environment, project timelines, safety, or any other relevant factors.

Employee's Response

Summarize the employee's response or explanation for their behavior, if a discussion has taken place.

Action Taken

Detail any immediate disciplinary actiontaken in response to the incident (e.g., verbal warning, suspension). Specify the company policies that the employee's actions violated.

Plan for Improvement

Outline specific expectations and steps for the employee to address and correct their behavior. This may include attendance at training sessions, a period of observation, or other remedial actions.

Consequences of Further Insubordination

Clearly state the potential consequences if the insubordination continues or if there is no improvement in behavior, up to and including termination.


  • Date for Follow-Up Meeting:
  • Goals for Improvement by Next Meeting:


This section is for the employee and a witness or HR representative to sign, acknowledging that the write-up has been discussed with the employee.

  • Employee Signature:
  • Date:
  • HR/Supervisor Signature:
  • Date:
  • Witness Signature (if applicable):
  • Date:

Additional Notes

(Any additional information or context that might be relevant to the situation or future reference.)

Sidestep Insubordination by Supporting Employees

When dealing with employee behavior, employers should consider all their options for resolving insubordination. This includes not just dealing with the behavior itself but addressing the root cause of employees’ defiance. One cause could be employees’ state of health and wellness. Nearly half — 47% — of working adults say that their jobs have negatively affected their mental health, and 43% say that their mental health has negatively affected their job performance, according to The Harris Poll.

Employees who don’t feel cared for and supported are less likely to feel positive about their connection to the workplace. Actively working to improve your employee engagement can help you increase employee satisfaction and engagement, which will reduce the likelihood of encountering incidents of insubordination. If you want help refining your company’s employee engagement process by improving your workers’ mental and physical health, talk to a Wellhub wellbeing specialist today.

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Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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