What to do About Insubordination at Work

By Andrew Willis
25 Sep 2020

If you're an employer or someone managing staff your aim will of course be to create a harmonious workforce. However, even the best workplaces encounter staff issues. The key question is when does employee behaviour become insubordination?

This article explores insubordination in the workplace and the correct process to handle it. Learn what insubordination is and what to do about it.

You can call Croner's expert team of award-winning advisors on 01455 858 132 for immediate support on this important employment law issue.

What does employee insubordination mean?

In business terms, it’s when a staff member actively disobeys the instructions of a superior.

This definition of subordination is, however, somewhat vague. For example, what if an employee refuses to obey a request, rather than an instruction? What if your employee frequently displays insolent behaviour? Good line managers understand when that becomes insubordination.

Some cases are straightforward, but others are difficult to determine. So, when considering insubordination, we need to look into specific examples of behaviour.

In particular, we should determine what behaviour is insubordinate and what classifies as misconduct.



What is insubordination at work?

In order to deal with insubordination as an employer you must first be able to recognise insubordinate actions. Serious insubordination examples at work include:

  • Openly mocking the business or management decisions.
  • Actively ignoring orders from a superior and line manager or refusing to complete tasks.
  • Showing disrespect to management with rude, aggressive, or threatening behaviour.
  • Expressing dissatisfaction through non-verbal means.


The difficulty of spotting insubordination at work in the UK is knowing the difference between free dialogue and insolent behaviour. If an employee challenges your ideas or offers a different opinion, this is not defiance.

If, however, your employee is consistently challenging you and is doing so in a rude or mocking way, you could consider that insubordination.

What to do about insubordination at work

Dealing with stubborn or defiant employees can mean pursuing a disciplinary procedure.

However, you can try to handle the issue informally first. Having difficult conversations is part of managing people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here’s how to approach it:

  • Stay professional at all times, and if staff are rude or loud don't be tempted to mirror their actions. Always address the employee politely.
  • Clearly outline their behaviour is unacceptable. Tell them you’re speaking to them because you believe they’re being insubordinate. Outline the disciplinary actions and consequences of such behaviour if they continue acting this way.
  • Even if you’re frustrated, the employee may have a genuine grievance you need to address so you should listen to them.
  • Refer to your policies. You should have clear guidelines on conduct in your handbook. Remind the employee of these and your intention to act on them if their behaviour continues.

Sometimes employee behaviour crosses the line and you may have to consider dismissal. Let’s take a step back and define what is considered insubordination in the workplace and what is gross misconduct.

What counts as gross insubordination?

Some acts of disrespect may not constitute serious insubordination. In these cases, it’s important to act early to stop the issue escalating.

However, some rudeness or aggression may immediately cross the line. Then you may need to go straight to a disciplinary. When this happens, it’s important you know exactly where that line is.

To do this we need to ask the question, “What is serious insubordination?” Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer to this. The best way for you to answer this question is to use your employee handbook. Outline what you consider serious insubordination, including examples, in your handbook.

List threatening or aggressive behaviours that aren’t acceptable. This way, you can refer back to the handbook when dealing with employee insubordination.



Who should deal with insubordination in my business?

Employee relationships are key and day to day employee engagement can go some way to discouraging insubordinate conduct. Insubordination can be dealt with by many internal stakeholders including:

  • Team leaders
  • Management roles
  • Senior management

Good management of team members is essential. Anyone in a leadership role in your business has a duty of care to manage staff effectively.

Insubordination and gross misconduct

There’s no strict legal definition of gross misconduct or formal guidelines on what constitutes gross misconduct in the UK. But the government defines gross misconduct as:

“Theft, physical violence, gross negligence, or serious insubordination.”

That means you can consider “serious insubordination” as grounds for dismissal for gross misconduct. Again, you should set out what you consider this to be within your documentation. If necessary, you may suspend the employee while carrying out an investigation.

Where the case is extremely severe, it may be necessary to summarily dismiss the employee.

However, you may only do this if their contract says so. Make sure you check for this clause before dismissing them to avoid a claim of unfair dismissal.

If an employer is to dismiss the employee, they must ensure they do so with a written warning and provide notice.

Dismissal without notice will result in a wrongful dismissal claim at an employment tribunal.

Expert support

If you’re struggling to deal with insubordination or an insubordinate employee, speak to a Croner expert today for quick, impartial advice. We’re experts in employer and employee relations, with experienced employment law advisors. Call our award-winning team today on 01455 858 132 or request a callback.

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.





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