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When is it insubordination?

By Mary Helen Gillespie, 3/8/2004

Insubordination is classically defined as an employee's willful disregard for a manager's direct orders. Inappropriate language can also constitute insubordination in certain cases. In today's white-collar world, despite several generations of performance and learning development tools formally embedded in work cultures, insubordination remains a managerial challenge.

There are times when the incident can be nipped in the bud with a brief word or corrective coaching. It is simply a lapse of judgment, or with less seasoned workers, a quick pit stop on the learning curve. But when faced with repeated instances of inappropriate behavior, managers must enforce formal discipline programs.

Which, frankly, are such a pain in the neck to even think about, never mind institute, that many would rather live with the inappropriate behavior rather than deploy a corrective action.

Chalk this up to the fact that managers are more likely to be promoted or placed in a supervisory position because they either exhibit superior functional skills - for instance, sales or nursing excellence - or because they show leadership expertise, such as the ability to engage work teams to achieve common goals. Rarely does someone get promoted for sterling performance as a disciplinarian who can whip the masses into shape using verbal and written warnings or the threat of termination.

Thus evolves the weary but well-known workplace phenomenon where a problem employee gets the "kid glove" treatment, and is allowed to continue with the inappropriate behavior because management can't or won't communicate that this activity must end. As a result, the entire team, as well as the organization suffers while management hides and tosses out labels like "high maintenance" or "prima donna" or "headstrong" while the errant employee runs amok.

Discipline controls are a de facto job requirement for anyone in a supervisory role. Hence many very qualified, smart individuals often opt not to accept a promotion or a new role in an organization because of a personal discomfort playing "the big, bad boss." In short, they fear their own failure.

This behavior will likely start small, a minor infraction incurred or a task sloppily executed. But uncorrected, it all snowballs. And what will inevitability happen is one big honking mess that taints customers and other stakeholders, the top two priorities of all organizations. This eventual meltdown may not be a public debacle with shouting, profanity, slapping and other forms of physical abuse. Which is a good thing because, having been privy to one such mucked-up workplace scene, I must say that there is truly nothing more terrifying than seeing co-workers screaming and hitting each other just inches away from your personal workspace.

More than likely, the end state will be an egregious neglect of duty or a neglected task so critical that the manager is literally gasping with shock when reality hits.

So what needs to be clearly communicated throughout the organization is the simple fact that the refusal to perform, as the workplace attorneys are wont to say, "reasonable" orders is cause for termination. Easily said, not as easily done, especially in smaller organizations like entrepreneurial and nonprofit environments.

Incorporating this practice into the daily routine requires discipline on behalf of the manager. This includes:

1) Documenting in a clear and conspicuous manner that failure to carry out direct orders from management may be a reason for termination of employment. This should be a written rule, not just an oral tradition. All employees, contractors or interim personnel must be aware of this policy.

2) Communicating that a request is a direct order. Say it: "This is a direct order." No fudging around with warm and fuzzy buzzwords.

3) Ensuring that the direct order is understood. Ask for written as well as verbal feedback that validates that the order is understood.

4) Validating that the order was reasonable. Verify that the employee has the necessary resources, i.e. additional people, technology or tools to complete the assignment.

5) Documenting progress reports. Don't wait until the end date on an action plan to view the task.

6) Asking the employee why there is an apparent failure to enact the direct order and achieve the desired results. Respond appropriately.

7) Verifying that the failure was indeed a willful disregard to the direct order. Initiate appropriate organizational discipline methods.

So, hold off on the whips. But do use your lips.

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