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Insubordination: When Saying ‘No’ is Unacceptable in the Workplace

Last week, we discussed the importance of saying “no” in the workplace. Sometimes, it is necessary for employees to decline an assignment or project given by their superior for reasons that ultimately benefit both the employee’s well-being and the organization’s functionality.

It is important to note that saying no in the workplace can sometimes be viewed as a form of rebellion against the organization when it is not accompanied by a legitimate excuse for their actions. Employers categorize this type of behavior as insubordination. Actions of insubordination can weaken the organization, build a lack of trust with the employee, and influence their counterparts to mimic the same behaviors if they are not reprimanded by the company.

Insubordination vs. Pushback


Insubordination is when a person disobeys authority and orders. Specifically, in the workplace, insubordination occurs when an employee intentionally refuses to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable orders. Professionals tend to commit these acts without first consulting with their supervisors to develop alternative solutions or verify the unclear directions needed to complete the next assignment. Furthermore, insubordination defines an employee’s decision to disregard or outright disrespect their employer for no legitimate reason. As a result, acts of insubordination prohibit supervisors from executing their job and managing their teams efficiently, thus negatively affecting the organization’s overall productivity. Three key factors that determine when a professional is displaying insubordination in the workplace include:

  1. The employer gives an order.
  2. The employee acknowledges the given order.
  3. The employee refuses to execute the order.


Pushback is acceptable and somewhat expected from employees in the office. The act of pushing back against an employer is technically also generalized under insubordination but is accompanied with reasonable excuses. Most professional-level employees are given a lot of leeway in how they approach their jobs. As a result, managers must recognize that their staff are experts at their roles and must rely on them to address any work-related questions or concerns when they arise. The key to differentiating between pushback and insubordination lies in the delivery of the employee’s response when declining the initial offer. For instance, an employee who declines an offer takes the time to discuss why the assignment is unreasonable and assists with developing a solution that satisfies both parties. That is considered pushback. However, if the employee ignores and ultimately disobeys their superior’s orders without any explanation, then that is considered insubordination.

Insubordination In the Workplace

Insubordination can be displayed through verbal and non-verbal communication in the workplace, commonly known as insolent behaviors.

Examples of Verbal Insubordination

  • Cursing
  • Using verbal or physical intimidation
  • Being argumentative with superiors  in private or in front of others
  • Throwing insults against coworkers or the company
  • Mocking others or the company

Example of Non- Verbal Insubordination

These actions are just as detrimental as the examples above because they also directly affect the employer’s inability to function properly. For instance, non-verbal acts of insubordination in the workplace may go unnoticed for a while, thus overtime their actions contribute to irreversible results that negatively impact the organization’s future. These actions include:

  • Unreasonable delays when completing work-related assignments
  • Failure to execute work-related assignments; thus causing a project to fail.
  • Refusing to maintain their previously agreed-upon work schedule (including clocking in, out, and for lunch on time.)
  • Using body language to display disrespect (i.e. rolling their eyes)
  • Manipulating managers to believe that a work assignment will be completed without actually intending to do so.

Consequences for Insubordination in the Workplace

The punishment for insubordination can vary depending on the severity of the act itself, the employee’s behavioral history within the office and the employer’s toleration for disobedience. Employees who display rebellion within the office for the first time may result in minor repercussions, like verbal or written warnings. However, employees who continuously refuse to follow their supervisor’s orders or commit actions that put the company’s integrity at risk may warrant a more severe response, like being terminated.

Insubordination Intervention

Although insubordination is inevitable, below are two common tips used to help avoid conflict in the workplace. As a result, they help ensure that all employees have a voice at work and guarantee that they are being properly supported by their superiors.

  • Communication: Whether it is through verbal or written actions, is crucial that managers build a strong, professional relationship with their staff. This action influences their team to address any concerns about tasks or parts of their role within the organization when they arise.
  • Set clear boundaries: It is important to set clear boundaries with employees as soon as they are hired into the organization. Usually, leadership takes the time to go over policies with new employees, and the expectations they will obtain through their individual roles to avoid any confusion in the future.

Briana Richardson-Jones serves as a Justice Department (DOJ) program analyst. Before becoming a federal employee, she pursued a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s of Science in criminology with a public policy concentration. She believes she can help prospective and new employees navigate government efficiently while currently doing the same. Briana has discovered creative tips that can help others “work smarter” in the future. She also plans on combining her love for writing and criminal justice to educate readers about current events and community issues affecting people worldwide.

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