Insubordination is a refusal to carry out orders given by a superior. While this concept is often linked with the military, where there can be stiff punishments for refusing to follow orders because it threatens the hierarchical structure, it can also occur in the workplace. Under employment law, it is possible to terminate employees who engage in a persistent pattern of refusing to do as they are told.
There are several characteristics that must be present before a situation can be considered insubordination. The first is that the order must clearly be an order, in the form of a verbal or written statement that includes some variation on the phrase "this is an order." Someone who says "it would be nice if someone prepared this report" is not issuing an order; someone who says "Mrs. Jones, I am ordering you to prepare this report" is making a clear order.
In addition, the order must be proper and cannot violate the employee's contract or the law. If an order is not proper, there is no obligation to carry it out.
In direct insubordination, an employee verbally refuses to carry out an order or makes it clear that the order will not be carried out. Indirect insubordination involves a failure to complete an order, without explicitly stating that the order will not be fulfilled. Sometimes, people refuse an order because they think it is unethical or illegal. If this later turns out not to be the case, they can be penalized for not complying.
Before someone can be terminated for this behavior, the employer must document a past history, with oral and written warnings about failing to follow orders and the consequences. This information can be used later to demonstrate that an employee was aware of the fact that what he or she was doing was being viewed as insubordination, and that the employee was warned about the risk of termination if the behavior continued.
In the workplace, acts such as whistleblowing are not insubordination. Whistleblowers are people who believe that an unsafe or imprudent situation is occurring and speak up about it, either anonymously or publicly. They are protected by law because they are protecting the safety of the workplace. Likewise, people such as union stewards are permitted to question the validity of an order in their role as a union representative, because they are equal to management when advocating for employees.