Insubordination vs disrespect

South African employees are so heavily protected by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, by Labour Legislation, by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), as well as trade unions, that they are often not afraid to defy the employer’s instructions.

For the employer the resulting insubordination is a nightmare. This is especially so where the employer or line management is ill equipped to deal with the insubordinate employee and fails to understand:

  • What insubordination really is,
  • How it differs from disrespect,
  • When a charge of insubordination is not appropriate, how seriously the law views insubordination, and
  • How it should be dealt with?

The big question is, “What is insubordination?”


A dictionary definition of insubordination is a person who is “..not submissive to authority, disobedient or rebellious..”

It is the refusal of an employee to bow to the authority exercised reasonably by the employee’s senior. This could include conduct such as:

  • Refusal or intentional failure to obey reasonable and lawful instructions,
  • Comments such as “You have no authority over me”
  • Telling the line manager to go and get what he/she wants from someone else.


I think it is imperative to draw a distinction between Insubordination and Disrespect. Insubordination applies only upwards and can only be perpetrated by a junior employee towards a senior. Disrespect on the other hand, can apply both upwards and downwards.

Disrespect is therefore not necessarily linked to a person’s position of authority, but can be linked to one’s human dignity.

A reasonable instruction is one that:

  • The employee is capable of carrying out;
  • Involves a task that is not substantially beneath the employee;
  • Does not infringe the rules of the employer or the laws of the country; and
  • Involves a task that truly needs to be done.

For example, if the Head of Human Resources tells the Recruitment Manager to come in over the weekend to repair the faulty elevator, the Recruitment Manager might be entitled to refuse, because he will be required to carry out a task:

  • That is completely outside his sphere of duties;
  • That is outside his capabilities;
  • Assigned to a time that is not normally worked; and
  • That if carried out by the Recruitment Manager, could result in danger to the users of the elevator.

The difference with the above scenario is: if the Recruitment Manager is required to conduct recruitment interviews because one of the Human Resource Consultants is in hospital, this would, in most cases, be considered both legal and reasonable.

It should be noted that insubordination is not the same as poor work performance. Poor work performance relates to how badly the employee has performed the task or missed deadlines.

Whilst poor work performance can sometimes be wilful, there is usually some work that is done, albeit badly, and the poor quality of work occurs regardless of whether the employee has been given an instruction.


The salient differences between Insubordination and Disrespect can be summarized as follows:


  • The employee refuses to obey a reasonable instruction given to them by their immediate manager,
  • The employee continually challenges the authority of their immediate manager


  • The employee’s conduct at the workplace is undermining his manager and or fellow employees. This can be linked to how the employees behave in direct conflict with the rules and process at the workplace.

Both the above are categorized as misconduct in the workplace, and therefore are subjected to the internal disciplinary processes of the company.


The content in this article was provided by Ivan Israelstam, and originally published in the South African Labour Guide (April 2010).

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