Civil Service Rules on Employee Insubordination

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Basic rules concerning insubordination in the civil service--the bureaucracy of the government--are basically uniform at the state and federal level. In order for a bureaucracy to run smoothly and the government to work efficiently, order must be maintained. This order is based on a chain of command from superior to subordinate. The refusal of the subordinate to follow an order of the superior always amounts to a charge of insubordination.


The most basic charge of insubordination is the failure of a government employee to perform his normal duties during normal business hours. But this rule is subject to many modifications that either increase or decrease the significance of the crime.


The first modification of the rule is that orders must be laid out in clear language. The civil service of the state of New Jersey holds that it is up to the employee to figure out any kind of misunderstanding. This goes for conflicting orders. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld this ruling: the burden lies with the employee, not the supervisor. At the federal level, if an order is countermanded by a second order, the person who issues the conflicting second order is fully responsible for whatever happens. The employee is responsible for carrying out the second order, but bears no responsibility for the consequences.

Read More: How do I Defend an Insubordination Charge?


The lawfulness of the order also must be established. No superior can order a subordinate to follow an order that is opposed to the laws of the state or the department. If an employee is defending herself against charges of insubordination, then she must prove that the order was in some sense conflicting with the law or basic department guidelines. In general, the employee must attempt to carry out the unlawful order, but if the order is too problematic, she needs to report it to the person above the head of their immediate superior.


Most state and local rules of insubordination also include the use of abusive language directed toward a superior. This is considered a form of insubordination that harms the order of the system and bureaucracy. It should be noted that the reverse is also true: no superior can use abusive language in reference to a subordinate. Muttering under one's breath--the legal concept of having an "expectation of privacy"--is not included in this rule. Any kind of abusive language must be intended to be heard by the person targeted.

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