Insubordination refers to an employee's direct refusal to complete an assigned task from a supervisor. Companies can and do terminate for insubordination, but clear policies and proper enforcement protect against discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuits.
The first important step is recognizing what generally constitutes insubordination. A somewhat abrasive or negative attitude normally isn't enough to justify termination for insubordination. Instead, the employee must take an overt action, such as refusing to complete an assigned task or communicating in an abusive or disrespectful manner to a manager in front of other workers. Deliberate nonperformance of an assigned task despite a clear understanding that the assignment was made also constitutes insubordination.
Read More: How do I Defend an Insubordination Charge?
The Termination Process
When a manager terminates an employee for insubordination, two common scenarios are usually involved. One is perpetual instances of insubordination, which often get worse over time. Another is an extreme case of aggressive or abusive insubordination, which may justify an immediate firing. In general, it is best to avoid immediate termination when angry. Ideally, the manager has a chance to prepare by documenting insubordinate behaviors. Even more compelling is documentation of meetings with the employee that include directives on required improvements and potential consequences if behaviors don't get better.
Law and Policy Guidelines
Two basic formal standards guide the right of an employer to terminate for insubordination. One is the law. In general, federal and state laws reinforce an employer's right to terminate when an employee refuses a superior's direct order or request, according to an October 2011 Human Resources Executive Online article. Many states also have common law definitions and court case precedents that dictate the rights of an employer to terminate in certain circumstances. Companies can also establish formal employment contracts and clear human resources policies outlining unacceptable behaviors along with consequences, such as a disciplinarian process or immediate termination. When a clear policy exists and is violated, termination for insubordination is typically supported by law.
Risks and Warnings
Firing someone for simply being rude or having a bad attitude, even with a manager, is harder to defend in a lawsuit. In these cases, the manager's perception isn't as strong as documented acts of insubordination. Courts have supported a worker's right to disobey an order in violation of a contract or company policy. If the manager mandates that an employee come in to work on Sunday, but a contract or bargaining agreement says no weekend work, the employee likely has a right to refuse.
Neil Kokemuller has been an active business, finance and education writer and content media website developer since 2007. He has been a college marketing professor since 2004. Kokemuller has additional professional experience in marketing, retail and small business. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University.