Insubordination vs. Disobedience – How To Spot And Respond

Discover the key differences between insubordination and disobedience—and why understanding them both is important to preventing and managing conflicts at work. 

In the workplace, insubordination and disobedience are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same.

Insubordination happens when an employee refuses to follow orders from a superior, while disobedience is a behavior that involves intentionally disregarding or disobeying specific instructions or rules, even if they come from someone with authority over you.

Knowing the difference between these two behaviors is important for managers and employers so they can respond properly.

  • When an employee is insubordinate, it can have serious consequences for the organization. It can hurt communication, and productivity, and even lead to legal issues.
  • On the other hand, disobedience can also negatively impact the workplace by lowering morale and engagement.

As a result, it’s important for managers and employers to distinguish between the two behaviors and respond appropriately to maintain a positive, respectful, and accountable work environment.

insubordination vs disobedience

What Is Insubordination?


Insubordination is a type of workplace misconduct where an employee refuses to follow a direct order from a supervisor or manager. This is a serious issue that can result in punishment, like losing their job. Insubordination can look different depending on the situation, like not doing what they’re told, not showing up for work, or even being disrespectful.

Employment law says that insubordination happens when an employee knowingly ignores a lawful and reasonable order from their superior. It’s important to know that the employee must have understood the order. Insubordination can also happen when an employee tries to go against their supervisor or manager’s authority.


Examples of insubordination include:

  • Refusing to follow specific instructions given by a supervisor or manager
  • Ignoring orders or failing to complete assigned tasks
  • Challenging or questioning the authority of a supervisor or manager in front of other employees
  • Failing to show up for work without a valid reason
  • Engaging in gross misconduct, such as physical violence or theft

It’s important for employers to keep a record of any instances of insubordination and follow the steps for discipline that are listed in the employee handbook.

This can include giving a written warning, suspension, or even firing the employee if the instances of insubordination are severe or happen frequently.

Insubordination can affect both the employer and the employee.

  • Employers need to take appropriate disciplinary action to maintain a workplace that is productive and respectful.
  • Employees should always follow instructions from their superiors and address any concerns through proper channels.

As the National Labor Relations Board says, “Employees have the right to disagree with their employer, but they must do it in a way that doesn’t break any of the employer’s lawful and reasonable rules.”

What Is Disobedience?


Disobedience is when someone intentionally breaks or ignores a rule or instruction, even if it comes from someone with authority over them. In the workplace, this can take many forms, like ignoring instructions, talking back to a superior, or engaging in rude or offensive behavior.

Disobedience can be directed toward anyone in the workplace, including managers, supervisors, colleagues, or clients.

Disobedience can have negative consequences in the workplace, such as making it harder to get work done, lowering morale, and possibly even resulting in disciplinary action.

To avoid these consequences, act obediently and follow the rules and instructions given by authority figures at work.

This helps create a positive and productive workplace culture where everyone can work together effectively.


Examples of disobedient behavior in the workplace include:

  • Refusing to follow orders or instructions from a superior
  • Talking back or arguing with a manager or supervisor
  • Engaging in rude or offensive behavior toward colleagues or clients
  • Failing to show up for work without notice or explanation
  • Violating company policies or guidelines, such as theft or harassment
  • Using social media to post negative or derogatory comments about the company or colleagues

Disobedient behavior can lead to serious consequences in the workplace, including disciplinary action, and even losing one’s job.

Employers must keep the workplace respectfully streamlined in terms of work and discipline, and they must take action when disobedient behavior occurs.

Employees too need to understand the difference between insubordination and disobedience.

Insubordination is when someone doesn’t follow a specific instruction or order, while disobedience is when someone intentionally breaks or ignores a rule or instruction, even if it comes from someone with authority over them.

In cases of insubordination, employers may need to follow specific disciplinary procedures under employment law, like giving a warning before firing the employee. In cases of disobedience, employers may have more flexibility in choosing the right disciplinary action.

So, understanding the difference between insubordination and disobedience is important for both employers and employees.

Both behaviors can have serious consequences in the workplace, and employers must maintain a respectful environment while delivering disciplinary action.

By addressing the issues quickly, employers can create a positive and productive workplace.

“Disobedient behavior is never acceptable in the workplace. It can create a toxic work environment and harm productivity and morale.” – HR Manager

“As a supervisor, it’s important to set a good example and model respectful behavior for your team.” – Supervisor

“Employees have a responsibility to show respect and courtesy towards their colleagues and superiors. It’s a key part of being a professional.” – HR Consultant

Understanding the Differences

Insubordination and disobedience are two terms that are often used interchangeably in the workplace, but they are slightly different. Insubordination is when an employee refuses to follow specific orders or instructions given by their employer, manager, or supervisor. On the other hand, disobedience is when an employee intentionally breaks or ignores a rule or instruction, even if it comes from someone with authority over them.

Insubordination can result in disciplinary action, including termination, while disobedience may lead to a verbal warning or a written reprimand.

Employment law and company policies may define insubordination and disobedience differently, but generally, insubordination involves not following specific instructions or orders.

Disobedience can take many forms, such as ignoring workplace rules, showing up late for work without a valid reason, or using company resources for personal reasons.

Managers and supervisors should try to address the root cause of the behavior, which may involve looking at issues with company culture, management decisions, or employee engagement.

Leaders should set clear guidelines and expectations for behavior and provide support and resources for employees who may be struggling.

Specific examples of insubordination may include an employee refusing to follow instructions from their superior or not completing tasks outlined in their job description.

Disobedient behavior may include an employee consistently coming in late to work, using company property for personal reasons, or breaking company policies.

In conclusion, understanding the differences between insubordination and disobedience is important for employers and managers to respond appropriately. By documenting the behavior, following disciplinary procedures, and addressing the root cause of the behavior, organizations can create a respectful and productive workplace environment.

“Respect commands itself and it can neither be given nor withheld when it is due.” – Eldridge Cleaver

“Insubordination may be a sign of courage or a lack of discipline. It depends on the context.” – Daniel Goleman

“Disrespectful behavior is not acceptable in any workplace. It undermines morale and productivity and can lead to legal issues.” – Anonymous

How to Respond to Insubordination and Disobedience

When an employee displays insubordination or disobedience towards their employer or manager, it can be a difficult situation to handle. However, it’s important to respond appropriately in order to maintain a productive and respectful workplace.

Here are some steps to take when dealing with insubordination and disobedience:


As with all workplace issues, documentation is important.

Proper record-keeping at the workplace must include instances of disobedient behavior.

Employers should take detailed notes of these instances, including the time and date and any witnesses present.

Such notes can help support disciplinary action and reveal underlying issues. It’s essential to document instances of insubordination or disobedience that occur in the workplace, whether through written warnings, emails, or witness statements.

These records can be used as evidence if disciplinary action becomes necessary.

Disciplinary Action

If an employee displays insubordination or disobedience, disciplinary action may be necessary. This can include verbal or written warnings, suspension, or even termination.

It’s important to follow the disciplinary procedure outlined in the employee handbook and to ensure that any disciplinary action taken is fair and consistent.


The supervisor must make it clear to employees that there are consequences for insubordination and disobedience.

This can include the loss of privileges, demotion, or even termination. By making it clear that there are consequences for bad behavior, employees are more likely to think twice before engaging in disobedience or insubordinate behavior.

Refusal to Follow Orders

If an employee refuses to follow orders, it’s important to address the situation immediately.

This can include reminding the employee of their job description and the instructions they were given, as well as the consequences of not following orders.

If the behavior continues, disciplinary action may be necessary.

Challenging Management Decisions

While employees have the right to challenge management decisions, it’s also noteworthy that they do so in a respectful and professional manner.

If an employee challenges a management decision in a disobedient or insubordinate way, disciplinary action may be necessary.

Dealing with disobedient Behavior

If an employee displays disobedient behavior towards their colleagues, it is best to address the situation immediately.

This can include reminding the employee of the company’s guidelines for acceptable behavior, as well as the consequences of not following these guidelines.

If the behavior continues, disciplinary action may be necessary.

As an employer or manager, it’s important to create a culture of respect in the workplace. By addressing instances of insubordination and disobedience in a timely and appropriate manner, you can help maintain a productive and respectful workplace for all employees.

  • “Respect is a two-way street, and so is disrespect.” – Unknown
  • “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” – Jim Rohn
  • “Respect is earned, honesty is appreciated, trust is gained, loyalty is returned.” – Unknown

Final Words: Take-Home Message

Here are three key points as the take-home messages:

  1. Insubordination and disobedience are distinct forms of workplace misconduct that require different responses.
  2. Insubordination involves an employee’s refusal to follow a specific order, while disobedience involves violating workplace norms or values.
  3. To address disobedience, employers should establish clear workplace expectations, while insubordination should be addressed immediately and documented.

As one expert notes, “The key is to be consistent and fair when dealing with these issues. By doing so, you can build a culture of respect and accountability in the workplace.”

Finally, ethical management requires understanding the differences between insubordination and disobedience and responding with empathy and emotional intelligence.

While addressing each situation, managers would do better to foster respect, accountability, and employee well-being.

This requires setting clear expectations while valuing employees as individuals with unique perspectives. Superiors must cultivate a workplace where employees feel valued, heard, and empowered to do their best work.

As one employee notes, “When everyone is on the same page and knows what is expected of them, it makes for a much better workplace.”

Further Reading:

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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy, an experienced medical doctor and psychology writer focusing on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and Stoic philosophy.

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