Serious Insubordination

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

(Last updated )

In this guide, we'll discuss what counts as serious insubordination, your legal standing, and how to manage an insubordinate employee.

Unfortunately, not all of your employees will meet your expectations. They may even cause difficult situations in the workplace where you need to take action. So you should ensure you have a clear disciplinary process - especially in cases involving serious insubordination.

If one of your staff members displays seriously insubordinate behaviour, they could put your business or employees at risk.

Failure to manage an insubordinate employee at work could lead to serious consequences for your company. These include poor job performance, reputational damage, and fraud.

In this guide, we'll discuss what counts as serious insubordination, your legal standing, and how to manage an insubordinate employee.

What is serious insubordination?

Serious insubordination in the workplace is a string of poor behaviour an employee commits. It typically occurs when an employee refuses to follow instructions set by their employer. Or, by another senior staff member - such as their line manager.

On its own, employers shouldn't consider relatively minor insubordinate acts. It only becomes serious if the act itself is so severe that, ultimately, it breaks any trust or confidence.

Does serious insubordination warrant disciplinary action?

Yes, in some instances, serious insubordination can warrant formal disciplinary action. Severe disciplinary consequences occur when employee insubordination becomes gross misconduct. This can be lawful grounds for dismissal.

For example, an employer may be able to justify summary dismissal if an employee's insubordination becomes violent or threatening. Even though gross insubordination can lead to dismissal, businesses should follow a fair procedure.

If they fail to initiate disciplinary proceedings properly, it could leave an employer liable for unfair dismissal. And they may have to attend an employment tribunal hearing. Consequently, they could face legal costs and hefty compensation.

Is insubordination gross misconduct?

Yes, acts of insubordination can be gross misconduct. 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.

If you're unsure what constitutes gross misconduct, here are some examples:

Insubordination at work is an act of defiance against your business’ authority. Let's explore some examples of insubordination to gain a better understanding.

Examples of serious workplace insubordination

To help you manage instances of serious workplace insubordination, you should ensure you can recognise it when it happens. Serious insubordination examples might include:

Undermining organisational authority

If an employee undermines the authority of their superiors, you might consider this insubordinate behaviour.

For example, this could include vulgar or mocking jibes to their manager when they ask them to do something. Or using overt gestures to convey negative feelings, such as eye-rolling or tutting.

Refusal to complete tasks

Another example of serious insubordination in the workplace is when an employee refuses to complete a task their manager sets.

For example, a manager asks a staff member to complete a task by the end of the day - and the employee acknowledges this. But, they then fail to start or finish the task, despite having no justifiable reason for not doing so.

Openly mocking business or management decisions

Insubordination occurs when an employee deliberately acts in a disrespectful manner towards senior staff members. This is specifically in regard to decisions the company makes.

For example, a business announces that it will be relocating as the company grows. But, an employee expresses anger at this vocally in front of the entire workplace. Even if they voice this on social media, the employer could still consider this insubordination.

What are the disciplinary outcomes of employee insubordination?

In the event that formal disciplinary proceedings are necessary, you should undertake a full and fair procedure. This will ensure you act lawfully, and consider all aspects of the case.

Let's examine the disciplinary procedure you can take in cases of employee insubordination:

Verbal warning and first written warning

When initial misconduct and minor instances of insubordination occur, you should issue a verbal warning to your employee.

The warning should inform them of their behaviour - namely the incident or incidents you consider to be insubordinate. And that if they don't change their behaviour or improve, the employee could face further disciplinary action.

Since you should put any disciplinary action you take against staff in writing anyway, you might wish to issue a first written warning instead. If the employee’s conduct doesn’t improve and you have a case against them, you should invite them to a disciplinary hearing.

Disciplinary hearing

You should only organise a disciplinary hearing in serious cases of insubordination - such as if further misconduct occurs. This should set out the consequences of a further complaint - which will likely be dismissal with notice.

At the disciplinary hearing, you must ensure you allow the employee to set out their case. This will give you an opportunity to understand if there have been any errors in your judgement. Otherwise, you should answer the allegations against them with your evidence.

You should also ensure you have an accurate written record of events, and call any witnesses where relevant. Additionally, the employee may wish to have a companion at the hearing - which is their legal right. This could be a co-worker, trade union representative or other trade union official.

Final written warning letter

Once the hearing is over and you have made your decision, you should inform the employee of it immediately. If you are continuing the staff member’s employment, you should include the details of this in a final written warning letter.

The warning should explain what behaviour the employee needs to change, and the time period within which they must change by. If the employee fails to improve their behaviour, the next step could be dismissal.

If you do decide to dismiss them, in a letter you should state:

How to avoid serious insubordination at work

Cases involving insubordination may start off small and become increasingly problematic. So it's best to resolve it early to prevent your business from suffering.

You won't be able to avoid every case of insubordination. But, if you consider taking the following actions, you might be able to prevent it from becoming serious.

Let's explore how you can spot insubordination early on:

Have regular one-to-ones with managers

Having regular meetings with managers will provide a space for them to open up to you. In turn, you can ask and address any issues they may be having. It might even help you understand a specific employee's conduct better.

For example, a manager flags a staff member who has refused to complete a task. Because the manager was able to inform you of this, you can then monitor the employee's performance - and prevent their behaviour from becoming increasingly worse.

This could avoid a potential workplace dispute and ultimately, serious insubordination.

Create a clear code of conduct

Written procedures - such as a clear code of conduct - can help mitigate the risk of unacceptable or improper behaviour.

A code of conduct is a set of guidelines employees should follow when working for you. Include them in your employee handbook. This will make staff aware of what you will and won’t tolerate as soon as they join.

It could also help you legally should you end up dismissing an employee for insubordination. As you have evidently explained what you expect from employees. Ultimately, employees will be more aware of their conduct and professionalism with written procedures in place.

Have a clear written disciplinary procedure

If you're dealing with insubordination at work, your organisation's disciplinary policy will give you guidance on what action you need can take. As long as it follows the law, the policy will ensure fair and consistent treatment of the employee - which will help you avoid unfair dismissal claims.

With a fair disciplinary procedure, you'll be able to take a number of steps before deciding to dismiss an employee. Which may give them a chance to improve their behaviour before serious insubordination occurs. As well as allowing them to explain possible mitigating circumstances.

Even in cases that potentially warrant summary dismissal, you should still follow a fair disciplinary procedure. If you're unsure, you should get in touch with an employment law specialist about what constitutes gross insubordination.

Get expert advice on serious insubordination at work from Peninsula

You should resolve issues of serious insubordination in the workplace properly and efficiently. Ensure you have a fair disciplinary procedure that follows legal advice, as it will ensure minimal damage occurs to your business.

Otherwise, you could risk low employee morale and high staff turnover. More severe consequences might include damage to your company's reputation. Or, legal proceedings if your employee has committed wrongdoing.

Peninsula offers expert advice on serious insubordination at work. Our teams provide 24/7 HR advice on workplace disciplinary matters - which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our HR experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.


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