Insubordination is a word that everyone seems to understand intuitively but may find difficult to define. That’s because it's easy to see when an employee is showing signs of insubordination, but much harder to point to the standards the employee violated. Insubordination occurs when an employee intentionally disregards the instructions of a supervisor or intentionally violates the workplace code of conduct by being disrespectful and abusive. There are three elements that can help determine if a person is being insubordinate and whether that behavior should lead to termination.

Employee Is Asked to Perform a Task

Supervisors have the authority to instruct lower-level employees to perform a task or complete a project. In most instances, the employee complies with the request. While it’s true that not every employee agrees with how a supervisor delegates a task, completing that task is part of the unwritten contract between an employee and a supervisor. For work harmony to exist, employees must submit to the workplace hierarchy by saying "yes" to their bosses, regardless of how inefficient or silly that task may seem. However, it’s important to remember that the supervisor’s order must be reasonable and within the parameters of the employee’s normal work duties.

Employee Heard and Understood the Order

Supervisors who issue orders to subordinates must ensure that those orders are clearly understood and that there’s no confusion about the nature of the task and the time frame in which it’s to be completed. If an employee expresses any confusion about the order, supervisors must take the time to explain the order until the employee understands what’s expected. An employee can question an order and make suggestions regarding that order without being insubordinate.

Employee Refuses to Comply With the Order

Once the employee demonstrates that he’s understood and accepted the order, his refusal to comply with the order is the final element of insubordination. Refusal occurs in different ways. Some employees refuse by telling their supervisors that they won’t comply with the order, and others simply disregard the order without saying anything to their supervisors. There are also employees who refuse by being disrespectful and even abusive. A supervisor may issue the same instructions a second time to give the employee a chance to comply, and if the employee maintains his stance of refusal, the insubordination is confirmed.

Exceptions to Insubordination

Employees who believe complying with a supervisor’s orders would violate their personal safety or the safety of another person can’t be accused of insubordination. Employees can also refuse to comply with any instruction or order that violates the law. In other words, their refusal in those instances would be justified and reasonable. This would also apply if an employee believed that obeying a supervisor’s instructions would violate a religious belief.