• Employee Conduct
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

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What's insubordination and how can your business spot it in your workplace? It can be difficult, so this guide explains common scenarios and what you can do to tackle the issue.

It’s common for businesses to experience difficult behaviour at work. But what is insolent behaviour? Well, it’s where an employee acts disrespectfully towards a superior—such as a boss, line manager, or the business as a whole.

This is insubordination. And while not a regular occurrence, if it does happen in your workplace then you should be properly prepared to deal with it.

In this guide, we explain exactly how you should go about establishing the right process.

What is insubordination?

As above, it’s an act of defiance against authority. For example, your employee may refuse to obey direct orders from superiors. But for it to be an act of insubordination, the employee in question must actively disobey one of their superiors.

If it’s a colleague of their level, then it’s a separate issue. If it’s an active case of defying orders, it can have implications on your business’ productivity. It can also sour your relationship with your employee, resulting in the termination of an employment contract.

This is especially the case if you're facing an act of serious insubordination.

Is insubordination gross misconduct?

No. While there are similarities, gross misconduct is improper or unlawful behaviour that breaches the implied duty of trust and confidence you have in your employees.

It can warrant summary dismissal. Examples of gross misconduct include:

  • Bullying.
  • Sexual harassment.
  • Hate crimes.
  • Intoxicated behaviour.
  • Damage to your business’ property.
  • Theft.
  • Fraudulent activities.

Insubordination, meanwhile, is an act of defiance against your business’ authority. Examples of this include:

  • Ignoring orders from a supervisor, or refusing to complete tasks.
  • Showing disrespect to high management, such as with foul language.
  • Mocking business or management decisions openly.
  • Making less verbal displays, such as eye-rolling or general dissatisfaction.

It can be a challenge to deal with such issues. How, exactly, can you address the acts of insolence to get your employee to focus and get productivity back on track? Ultimately, remember that as a term “insubordination” is in less use than misconduct.

In fact, as leadership styles are now changing to welcome more progressive viewpoints, business hierarchies have changed. It’s common, in fact, for employees of lower levels to challenge managers or even CEOs.

As there’s a sense of free dialogue and open opinions in modern workplaces, it can make spotting insubordination difficult.

Despite such issues, if an employee is being openly insubordinate (swearing or refusing to follow orders, for example) then your manager should be able to spot the issue. Once reported, you should act to bring the issue to an end.

How to deal with insubordination in the workplace

There are a number of options you have available. Just remember that it’s part of business life—having difficult conversations in the workplace will have to happen from time to time.

Dealing with stubborn employees can involve disciplinary actions, but before you get to that stage you can try other methods.

  • Remain professional: Even if you feel like a staff member is openly mocking you and your business, it’s important to keep professionalism in mind. Don’t be rude in return and don’t become angry—keep a level head and address the employee politely.
  • Address them correctly: With the above in mind, make it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable. You can also state that you consider it an act of insubordination, which can have serious consequences.
  • Consider your employee’s point of view: Even if you’re frustrated with their behaviour, hear out what they have to say. They may have a genuine grievance you have to address.
  • Act on your policies: You should have clear guidelines on employee conduct in your company handbook and employment contracts. Even if you like the staff member, if they breach your rules then they have to face the consequences of their actions.

Breaches of contract and insubordination can be grounds for dismissal. Again, that depends on your business policies, so you should outline your rules clearly.

With your company handbook, you can make it clear what forms of insubordination you deem enough to warrant contract termination.

That’s your insubordination clause—if you exercise it, then you must provide evidence to support your decision. Otherwise it could be an unfair dismissal.

Sometimes a verbal warning is enough. You should also follow that up with written warning so that you have a record of the incident. You may need to refer to it at a future date.

Sample letter of insubordination in the workplace

A written warning is a chance to document your employee’s poor behaviour. It can also prove important in the event of an employment tribunal. Below, you’ll find a sample template that you can use with your company’s official type head.

You can adapt this as necessary to the type of incident that has occurred, along with any other requirements for your business.

Template letter of insubordination

[Business name and address] [Date] [Name of employee]

Subject: A warning for insubordinate behaviour

Dear [employee’s name],

A report has come to my attention that you [cover the allegations about the act of insubordination].

The incident occurred yesterday at around midday. Several staff members, including your line manager, went on to make a report about it. We require our staff members to remain professional during working hours.

Your behaviour was a breach of our company policies and we class it as an act of insubordination. You must read through our company handbook to understand the conduct we expect from all of our staff members.

You should alter your behaviour to be in line with our expectations, or we will consider taking disciplinary actions. If you disagree with these accusations, you can write to your line manager stating your complaint.

Yours sincerely,


End of template

*Disclaimer: This template provides a guideline. You should only use it as a reference for your company. You may need to consider additional local laws or changes due to the nature of the act of insubordination. Peninsula UK will not assume any legal liability should any issue arise from the use of the above template.

We can help

If you’re dealing with a difficult member of staff, then we can help you sort out the issue. Call us for immediate assistance: 0800 028 2420.

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