Insubordination: When Do You Have to Do as You’re Told… And When Don’t You?

Dear Union Brothers & Sisters,

By Brenda D. Pryor, Esq.

By Brenda D. Pryor, Esq.

I am writing to you today with some tips on how to identify and avoid situations when you can be accused of and disciplined for insubordination. As insubordination is one of the few offenses for which you can be terminated for a 1st (and sometimes “minor”) offense, you must be vigilant to not to be accused of it, ever.

Insubordination, simply defined, is the act of willfully disobeying an authority figure. The typical way an employee gets in trouble for insubordination is by refusing to perform an action that their supervisor, or other authority figure, requests. You can also be accused of this if you fail to follow operating or safety instructions and procedures that you have been notified of in advance. Additionally, orally refusing to do a work assignment, even if you subsequently do the work or follow the instruction/procedure, can be considered insubordination. Lastly, some colleges define flagrant, open, or hostile disrespect as a form of insubordination.

There are literally thousands of cases that deal with insubordination. For example, a recent arbitration decision regarding insubordination upheld the termination of an employee who refused two requests to perform a particular work duty at the end of her shift. The request was not in writing, but was “explicit & clearly given.” But in a different case, an employee’s termination was turned into a 30 day suspension when the arbitrator found that his “rude, vulgar, and inappropriate” behavior was not tantamount to insubordination. So, how can you know how not to be insubordinate, if even the legal experts are split!

Here are some tips to avoid being written up for insubordination:

  • Say yes to a work assignment, even if you are unsure of what the duty entails or if it is “your job.” You can always clarify with your supervisor what should be done and by who afterwards, request documentation from your supervisor (or even their supervisor) to see if you should really be doing what you’ve been asked, and check with the Union. It is much easier to grieve something they do wrong, than to defend an insubordination charge.
  • Know all pertinent work rules that govern your position – people have been successfully terminated for violations of written work rules they never saw or don’t remember ever seeing!
  • Know the contract – if something is not bargaining unit work or is outside your job description, it is the Union’s job to fight that for you, but if you don’t know your rights, how can we defend them?

Lastly, please be aware that it is not insubordination to refuse to commit an act (no matter who requests it) that is unethical or illegal. However, if you end up in a situation like this, immediately contact the Union, so we can determine if you are right and how the situation should be handled. Insubordination is like TNT – handle with care – or risk having your career blown to bits!