How HR Managers Can Reduce Insubordination In The Workplace

May 10, 2023

how hr managers can reduce insubordination in the workplace

Dealing with difficult employees can be very challenging. However, it is a scenario that every manager and HR manager must deal with at some time or another.

From conflicting priorities to personality clashes, handling problem situations forms a significant part of the management role.

In this article, you can learn more about insubordination in the workplace, including what it might look like and how HR managers can help to reduce it.

What is insubordination in the workplace?

Insubordination in the workplace describes a situation where an employee ignores an instruction from their manager and decides to do something else instead.

Put simply, insubordination occurs when a manager instructs an employee to do something, and the employee does not do it.

Insubordination also describes situations where an employee questions or mocks management decisions or acts disrespectfully towards senior staff members. Non-verbal actions such as eye-rolling are often considered mild insubordination.

Insubordination in the workplace can occur for a few reasons - sometimes, employees are rebellious or lazy, and other times they are forgetful. In other cases, the manager's expectations are unreasonable or unrealistic.

Insubordination often leads to the termination of the employment contract.

Examples of insubordination in the workplace

The Society for Human Resources Management notes that the following three things lead to insubordination.

  1. The manager or employer gives a reasonable and legal order to the employee

  2. The employee acknowledges the order

  3. The employee refuses to do what the manager has ordered them to do

Insubordination does not apply if an employee is underperforming in their role, experiencing a reasonable disagreement or conflict within the team, refusing to undertake an illegal activity or refusing to work in an environment that is unsafe.

Here are some common examples of what insubordination in the workplace might look like.

1. Refusal to complete set tasks

This can present in a few different ways.

For example, avoidance of tasks occurs when an employee agrees to do a set task but deliberately chooses not to complete it.

Subtle sabotage describes a situation where an employee does not object to doing a task but instead refuses to do it and then takes steps to sabotage the project, causing it to fail.

Other times, the employee might accept a task but then do the exact opposite.

Put simply, insubordination occurs when an employee refuses to carry out a task set by their employer that is within the scope of their job role.

For example, the job description for an office receptionist might include opening and distributing post at the beginning of each day. If the office manager asks them to do this task and they ignore or refuse, this could be perceived as insubordination.

2. Non-attendance at work

When a prospective employee accepts a job offer, they must agree to specific terms of employment. This often includes a work schedule, which sets the expectations for when the employee must attend work.

If the employee refuses to attend work per their assigned schedule, this could be perceived as insubordination.

Similarly, if the employee leaves work earlier than their shift end time without permission, this could be considered insubordination. If the employee asks to leave work early, the manager refuses with good reason, and the employee still leaves early, this could be considered insubordination.

3. Being disrespectful to the senior team

Again, this can present in several different ways. Employees might push back against a manager's instructions or use negative body language, such as rolling their eyes when the manager speaks in a meeting.

In more extreme examples, the employee might argue openly in front of other people or talk negatively about them to other colleagues.

Causes of insubordination in the workplace


There are several reasons why employees may engage in insubordinate behavior at work.

These might include:


Stress leading to insubordination could be work-related or due to personal issues. The American Institute of Stress reports that around one million US citizens miss work every day as a result of stress, and 76% of US workers say that workplace stress has had an impact on their relationships outside of work.

In many cases, stress is a temporary issue. Adjusting the employee's workload or shift pattern may help in the short term. In many cases, this type of insubordination can be resolved without the need for disciplinary action.

If stress is suspected to be the cause, HR managers can work with line managers and employees to put in the required support. Depending on the root cause of the stress, this might include a referral to occupational health, a stress risk assessment or further training in skills such as time management.

Work environment

Both the physical and teamwork environments can contribute to insubordination at work. It could be linked to problems working with a particular team leader, supervisor or colleague, or it might be that the manager is putting unrealistic expectations on the team.

HR managers can work with employees and line managers to establish critical problems in the work environment and create a plan to resolve them.

Personal agenda

This type of insubordination can be more challenging to diagnose. It might be that the employee is trying to remove a senior colleague or team leader from the work environment so that they can move into their job role, or it might be something more personal to the employee.

HR managers can arrange support such as mediation or counseling if they suspect a personal agenda is an underlying reason for insubordination.

How to address insubordinate behavior

Setting clear boundaries is the best way to avoid insubordination at work. When employees know their manager's expectations, it should be easier for them to keep their performance on track.

However, insubordination at work can still occur even if the manager is very clear about their expectations.

When a manager identifies insubordination at work, they can take a few steps to resolve the issue. Managers must act quickly - ignoring the behavior usually leads to more insubordination, even if it might seem easier to let things slide.

Read on to learn more about how to address insubordinate behavior in the workplace.

1. Gather facts

Collating all of the facts is vital to addressing insubordinate behavior. HR managers must find out who was involved, what happened, where the incident took place, at what time and in what context. If there were witnesses, statements must be gathered. All of this information should be documented, securely stored and shared with the employee.

It is also important to look at the employee's track record. Has there been a history of insubordination or is this the first time this issue has occurred? If there is a history of insubordination, what was the outcome? If the employee was issued a warning, this will impact how the current behavioral issues should be addressed. If it is not a first-time offense, the disciplinary sanction could be more severe.

How does the organization approach insubordination issues? The HR manager must ensure any action taken is fair and consistent with the organization's policy and any previous sanctions.

2. Discuss the behavior with the employee

The manager and HR manager must call a formal meeting with the employee. This meeting aims to discuss the incident and gain their side of the story. The HR manager must communicate clearly and effectively, providing specific examples of the unacceptable behavior that is being discussed.

They should go over the facts gathered earlier in the process with the employee, explaining what happened, when and why this was unacceptable. The HR manager should cross-reference the discussion with the relevant policies or organizational guidelines. The employee should be allowed the opportunity to explain what happened and why.

3. Document the behavior

Any discussions about an employee's behavior should be documented. Even if the manager is dealing with a minor case of insubordination, having a clear paper trail is vital if they find themselves dealing with major insubordination in the future.

HR managers should keep copies of witness statements, letters issued to the employee and minutes of any meeting stored securely on the employee's file.

When documenting information about employee insubordination, it is important to keep things clear, brief and unemotional. Managers must clearly state what the consequences of continued insubordination are likely to be.

4. Determine the cause

Understanding the cause of insubordinate behavior can be complicated.

Encouraging an open discussion with the employee is the best way to establish the cause. HR managers should encourage an honest dialogue between the manager and the employee.

If the employee is willing to articulate why they behaved the way they did, developing an action plan for the future should be easier. Even if the manager is frustrated by the employee's behavior, determining the cause is vital as there may be a genuine grievance that needs to be addressed.

5. Decide on appropriate disciplinary action

Insubordination might lead to a verbal warning, written warning or demotion. In some cases, termination of the contract may be deemed appropriate. However, this is usually only appropriate in cases of gross insubordination.

It can be difficult to define what is considered gross insubordination. The easiest way to answer this is by referring to documents such as the employee handbook and disciplinary rules. Some examples of gross insubordination might include physical violence, gross negligence and consistent malicious behavior towards other colleagues.

HR managers should work with line managers to decide which policies are relevant to the issue. From there, deciding on an appropriate sanction or disciplinary action should be possible.

6. Follow up with the employee

Whatever the outcome, following up with the employee in writing is important. This ensures they have a written record of the sanction and what they must do to avoid further issues.

In some cases, arranging further follow-up meetings with the employee might be beneficial. This can help to address future issues promptly, avoiding other problems with insubordination in the workplace.

Follow-up is also useful if an action plan has been agreed. It can be used as a checkpoint to ensure that the employee and manager stay on track with any agreed actions.

7. Offer support

In some cases, employees will require additional support after an incident of insubordination. This is especially true if issues have been identified with team relationships, stress or the general working environment.

The types of support available will differ between organizations but might include the following:

  • Occupational health referral
  • Counseling
  • Mediation
  • Further training
  • Team building activities

How to prevent insubordination


The easiest way to prevent insubordination is to set clear guidelines and expectations at the beginning of the employment relationship. Ensuring new starters have access to information on the organizational culture and disciplinary rules at the earliest possible stage is vital.

1. Establish clear expectations and guidelines for behavior

To avoid conflict and insubordination in the workplace, it is important that organizations let employees know what is expected of them at an early stage of the employment relationship.

Employees should be issued a copy of the employee handbook and code of conduct as part of the onboarding process. Managers may also wish to recirculate this information at key checkpoints during the employee lifecycle, for example, before promotion, after parental leave or during organizational change.

2. Provide regular feedback

Offering frequent feedback to employees is the best way to reinforce positive behavior and prevent future poor behavior. This can be achieved in several ways, depending on the work environment.

Where possible, managers should aim to meet with staff regularly. This will include an annual appraisal, but interim performance reviews should also be scheduled where possible.

Managers should also communicate with staff on an informal basis, addressing problems promptly as they arise and offering praise for achievements and accomplishments.

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3. Encourage open communication and dialogue

Communication between the manager and employee should be two-way. Employees should be offered the opportunity to respond as part of the formal performance review and appraisal process. Still, they should also have regular opportunities to communicate with their manager informally.

This can be achieved by running regular team meetings, offering one-to-one meetings and being available for telephone calls and one-off chats when required. Managers should actively encourage their staff to speak up about problems and issues in the workplace, as this will allow them to resolve and improve things.

4. Offer training and development opportunities

Regular training and development opportunities are vital to any workplace relationship. All employees will need extra training from time to time.

Managers should work with employees to identify development needs and training requirements that will help to increase productivity, improve the work environment and boost relationships within the team.

Insubordination often occurs when employees feel undervalued or unable to pursue their career goals. Helping staff feel empowered to meet their full potential is a helpful way to reduce the risk of insubordination in the workplace.

5. Foster a positive workplace culture

Toxic work environments must be addressed as soon as possible. Ignoring negative workplace culture and toxic behavior will only lead to more problems in the future. HR managers can help line managers to foster a positive workplace culture by:

  • Prioritizing a positive onboarding experience for new starters

  • Developing a comprehensive training and development program

  • Listening to employees' concerns about the working environment

  • Facilitating regular one-to-one meetings between employees and line managers

  • Improving communication across the organization

  • Developing a strong workplace culture and ensuring this is clear throughout the employment journey, from job adverts to exit interviews

Final thoughts

It is important to consider the bigger picture when dealing with insubordination in the workplace. Establishing the reason for the insubordination is the first step.

Setting clear boundaries at the start of the employment relationship is vital, but managers should also encourage open dialogue with an employee that disagrees with a workplace policy or procedure.

When insubordination occurs, it should be dealt with promptly. The employee should be given examples of unacceptable behaviors and issued with the appropriate sanction.

All conversations must be documented, and an action plan should be agreed upon to prevent similar issues from happening in the future.

Onboarding plays an important part in reducing insubordination in the workplace. According to the Society of Human Resources Management, 69% of employees are more likely to remain with an organization for at least three years if they experienced great onboarding.

Want to create a slick onboarding process for your organization? Contact Neuroworx today to learn how we can help.