In the typical work environment, supervisors give their employees work directives based on job descriptions, performance expectations and business demands. In some cases, an employee may disagree with the supervisor's order, even going so far as to argue with the boss, because he doesn't want to do the work or doesn't consider it part of his job. Some companies call an employee who argues with his manager "terminated." Other companies look at the circumstances first and call them "insubordinate" before making a decision about employment status.
Insubordination is like intuition -- you know it when you see it. But pinpointing it is a challenge for employers. Whether an employee's actions qualify as insubordination can depend on the supervisor-employee relationship and even the history of communication styles between the two. Also, the reason why a supervisor issues the work directive may influence how an employee responds. The factors that determine whether an argumentative employee is being insubordinate vary based on the work environment, temperament, underlying reasons and the tenor of the employee's response.
Three factors are essential in defining insubordination, according to labor and employment lawyer Keisha-Ann G. Gray, senior counsel with the New York City-based Proskauer law firm. The first two elements are that the supervisor must give the employee a direct work order or imply that the work is assigned to the employee, and the employee must acknowledge that the directive is intended for him. The third element for insubordination is the employee's refusal to do the work by either telling the supervisor that he will not do the work or by simply not doing the job. When an employee argues with his boss about a task that his supervisor assigns, he's probably being insubordinate.
Employees who argue with supervisors who assign certain tasks to them probably don't understand the disclaimer that many job descriptions contain. The disclaimer, "And other assigned duties, tasks and responsibilities," means a supervisor can assign additional work even if it's not part of the employee's official job description. The obvious caveat is that the supervisor shouldn't demand that the employee perform tasks that are unethical, illegal or that violate company policy. In that case, it's probably not fair to call an argumentative employee insubordinate; however, it's wise to counsel the employee on how to refuse job tasks in a professional manner.
Some employees and supervisors have a very informal way of interacting with each other, in which case, arguing between the two may not be unusual. Nevertheless, for the sake of other employees who don't have that kind of relationship with the boss, it can set a poor standard for mutual respect in the workplace. Despite the supervisor-employee relationships, arguing in the workplace can get out of hand. Therefore, it's wise to establish a policy that prohibits disrespectful behavior among staff and leadership. Many employers loosely define insubordination in their workplace policies so they have some leeway in looking at incidents on a case-by-case basis instead of insisting that all workplace disagreements violate policy.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.