May 6, 2014

What Is Insubordination? And Why Should You Care?

By Paul Bieber

I do have a life other than glass.  And in this other life, I have become involved in a situation concerning insubordination.  So, in turning lemons into lemonade, I have a ready-made blog topic.

First step, what is insubordination?  It is when an employee refuses to do an assigned task given by a person with the authority to do so, such as a foreman or supervisor.  Or the employee does the task poorly or slowly, in order to make his point.  There are exceptions, such as when the employee feels the task is unsafe, hazordous or illegal, but these should be communicated by the employee to the correct supervisor and not just ignored.  It is also insubordination when an employee starts a shouting match with a supervisor, attempting to belittle or harrass the supervisor.

So, now we have the easy part, the definition.  The hard part is deciding what to do about it.  Do you have a definition of insubordination in your employee handbook?  (Most people don’t, including this situation I am involved with.) Do you state what will happen after an event of insubordination takes place?

You may say that insubordination, along with many other types of problems will be handled by your progressive discipline rules, where the first event causes strike one, then strike two, and with the third event, you’re out.  You probably also say that even though you have a progessive discipline program, extreme violations can proceed directly to “step three, you’re out.”

Still pretty easy.  Problem defined, problem taken care of.  Now comes the hardest part, and one which you need to discuss with your supervisors and your work force.  And that is, what is regular conversation and what is insubordinate?  This is strictly a gut feel call, as there are no defined standards.  You set the standards in your own company.  If you are a ‘yeller and a screamer,’ expect the same back from your staff.  If you are generally polite and calm, expect that in your whole company. 

It’s hard to define, but you do know it when you see it.  And that is when you call a time-out, tell the employee that he/she is insubordinate, and suspend him/her for a day or two.  Restart the conversation when the employee returns, calmly and in an area away from others.  Let the employee speak and explain why he/she was upset, and you do the same.  In the event of an ongoing disagreement, you are the boss, and therefore, you are correct.  Tell the employee that this form of outburst, or slow-down, or whatever, is not acceptable behavior, and another instance will result in a longer suspension or termination.

The biggest problem with insubordination is that it is usually public.  If an employee disagrees with you in your office, it is a discussion.  If the disagreement is in the shop, with others listening, you have to take action on it.  If you don’t, others will feel they can ‘bully the boss,’ whether it is you or a foreman. 

Lastly, be consistent.  If you let one person yell at you because they always do and you are used to it, and then you go on to say a second person is insubordinate because they yelled at you for the first time, you’ll have a discrimination problem for the second person.  The best answer is to not have anyone argue with you in public and respond correctly if you do.