Insubordination Legal Definition:

Willful failure to obey a supervisor's lawful orders.

Related Terms: Insolence

In Garvin v Chambers, a California case, insubordination was defined as refusal to obey some order which a superior officer is entitled to give and is entitled to have obeyed.

In Sims v. Board of Trustees, Holly Springs Municipal Separate School District, insubordination was defined as:

"A constant or continuing intentional refusal to obey a direct or implied order, reasonable in nature, and given by and with proper authority."

In Young v. Mississippi State Tax Commision (1994), an important distinctions was noted. The common law definition will yield to any contractual or statutory definition applicable as between the employer and the alleged insubordinate employee.

In Canada, Sauders Industries v IWA, the arbitrator adopted these words:

Insubordination"One of the most basic and widely accepted rules of arbitral jurisprudence holds that employees who dispute the propriety of their employer's orders must, subject to the considerations which follow, comply with those orders and only subsequently, through the grievance procedure, challenge their validity.

"Obviously, this is a basic principle of the workplace - work now, grieve later.

"Apart from the circumstances in which the general principle has been found to be inappropriate, arbitrators have generally insisted that to sustain an allegation of insubordinate conduct of this type, the employer must prove that an order was in fact given, that it was clearly communicated to the employee by someone with the proper authority, and that the employee actually refused to comply.

"Insubordination (is) defiance of an employer's authority including disobeying a lawful order or work assignment, abuse of a supervisor, etc. In my view, the abuse of a supervisor can be physical and/or verbal."

In Amos v Alberta, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench judge opined as follows:

"It is not possible, from one fact alone, to conclude if insubordination in a particular situation can justify summary dismissal. Usually, one instance of insubordination will not be sufficient to summarily fire an employee. However, one incident of insubordination can be enough if:

  • the insubordination be grave;
  • it consists of wilful and deliberate disobedience of an order;
  • work rules were made known to the employee;
  • work rules were consistently enforced;
  • work rules were clearly communicated to the employee;
  • the work order was authorized, that is, that it came within the scope of the worker's duties;
  • the worker was made aware, unequivocally, that discipline is the penalty for disobedience;
  • the work order was lawful and reasonable in content;
  • the employee has to reasonable excuse for disobedience;

"In summary, the court must assess all relevant circumstance to determine if, in a particular case, insubordination justifies summary dismissal."

In regards to the related but distinct term, insolence, as set out in Henry v Foxco Ltd.:

"There is a distinction between insubordination and insolence though sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. In this case, there was some evidence of both: (the employee's) use of abusive language directed at (the supervisor) constituted insolence while (the employee's) refusal to use a "heat gun" to speed up the removal of the decals from the vans and his refusal to obey (the supervisor's) directive to go home and cool down was insubordination."

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