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What is considered insurbordination, and how to manage it effectively

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Insubordination is a complicated issue to manage effectively within the workplace and poses a serious challenge.  If not managed and corrected, insubordination can significantly impact productivity, the working environment, and operations. At the root of managing insubordination is a need for effective and honest communication. We examine what insubordination is and how to manage it effectively below. 

What is insubordination? 

Insubordination refers to the direct or indirect defiance of or resistance to authority and the refusal or failure to obey clear, reasonable and lawful instructions from a manager or supervisor when the directive has been clearly understood or acknowledged. 

According to the CCMA, the reasonable instruction itself may take the form of a verbal directive, written instructions, the duties described in a job description and even an implied set of duties where no formal job description exists. An employee’s refusal to accept this kind of reasonable and lawful instruction by the employer constitutes misconduct as it directly challenges authority and is often referred to as gross insubordination, which is grounds for dismissal. It must be noted that not all degrees of insubordination are grounds for dismissal.

What behaviour is considered to be insubordination, and what is not?

What behaviour is considered to be insubordination, and what is not

Insubordination is often confused with insolence and misconduct, as each is separated by a fine line. Insolence refers to disrespectful conduct, rude behaviour,  mocking, insulting, making inappropriate comments, using bad language, etc., towards a manager. According to the CCMA and the labour appeal court, insubordination only refers to the refusal to follow an employer/manager’s explicit instructions. This means that the disrespectful behaviour mentioned above is not categorised as insubordination, but rather as insolence and often is a less serious offence. Unless, for example, the employee engages in the use of threatening or abusive language, participates in harassment, unlawful or aggressive behaviour towards the employer. These behaviours are examples of gross misconduct, and are grounds for dismissal.

There are varying degrees and forms of insubordination within the workplace that need different disciplinary consideration. Insubordination is generally considered to be dismissible if it can be shown there was “gross” insubordination. It is essential to understand if the insubordinate behaviour is a deliberate and persistent outright challenge or just a once off case. To find out more, these questions need to be asked: 

  • Was the instruction given to the employee clear? 
  • Did the employee have the means/training and/or equipment to follow through on the instruction? 
  • Was the instruction lawful and reasonable? 
  • What was the employee’s reason excuse for the defiance of authority? 

As an employer, you need to look at cases of insubordination on a case by case basis, examine both sides of the story, and look at all the facts. We discuss how to manage this process effectively in more detail below. 

How to effectively manage insubordination in the workplace

How to effectively manage insubordination in the workplace

There are several different ways to effectively manage insubordination within the workplace to ensure that it does not impact productivity and the working environment. These include: 

Employee code of conduct 

At the centre of managing insubordinate behaviour are communication and understanding. Many businesses rely on a code of conduct, a company’s disciplinary guidelines, or an employee handbook to outline acceptable behaviour within the workplace — these codes of conduct act as a guide in terms of what will and will not be accepted. For example, if an employee has a problem with an instruction, they should address this with their manager in private and not in front of the rest of the team. These handbooks will also list what would constitute insubordination and how it will be managed in terms of disciplinary action. This sets clear boundaries, ethical standards and highlights the rules of the employer and what constitutes insubordinate actions.

Look at both sides and be understanding 

Even with the use of handbooks and codes of conduct, there will be cases of unclear insubordination in the workplace. As the employer, it is your job to look at both sides objectively. Call a meeting with an HR representative who will act as a mediator and witness and ask both the manager and the employee about the instruction given and why it was not followed through. You may find some underlying issues relating to training, safety, information, and facts or that this was in fact just a misunderstanding between the two. Something could have also been said in the heat of the moment due to frustration or lack of understanding. As an employer, you need to find out why this is happening and put measures in place to rectify this as well as deciding what the appropriate disciplinary charge is, if necessary. 

Have an open door policy in your workplace

If a misunderstanding causes insubordination, you need to ensure that this is rectified through communication. If you instill an open door policy, employees will be comfortable having conversations about projects and instructions. This will also positively impact employee morale and decrease the likelihood of insubordinate behaviour. 

Nip insubordination in the bud early on 

Whether insubordination is a serious rebellion or a genuine disagreement, it is essential to manage it early on and have a swift response. Call a meeting with the parties involved, have a discussion, and see if there is any valid reasoning behind the defiance of an instruction by the employee. From there, decide on the appropriate disciplinary action depending on the magnitude of the insubordination. . Use this as an opportunity to go over what is considered to be insubordinate behaviour, the employer’s expectations for an employee  and what employees can do instead of ignoring the employer’s authority. 

Fair Process 

If it turns out that the behaviour qualifies as gross insubordination and misconduct, and the appropriate sanction is dismissal, the right processes need to be followed for the dismissal to be lawful and fair. This process includes:

  • An investigation by the employer to determine whether there are grounds for dismissal – this does not necessarily need to be a formal inquiry.
  • The employer should notify the employee of the allegations using a form and language that the employee can understand and follow;
  • If after the investigations, it is found that the allegations are vald, a disciplinary hearing should be set down
  • The employee should be allowed to state a case in response to the allegations
  • The employee should be entitled to a reasonable time to prepare the response and have the assistance of a trade union representative, fellow employee or legal advice (where appropriate)
  • After the inquiry, the employer should communicate the decision taken and provide the employee with a written notification on the disciplinary hearing outcome and the decision made. 
  • If the employee is dismissed, they should be given the reason for dismissal and may appeal the sanction, and  reminded of any rights to refer the matter to a council with jurisdiction or to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) or to any dispute resolution procedures established in terms of a collective agreement.


Insubordination within the workplace can affect a businesses productivity, cause poor overall morale and impact the work environment negatively. This is why it is so essential to manage insubordination effectively. 

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