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Labour Attorney Cape Town


Information on Insubordination

Information extracted from the internet, not original of this website:


There does seem to be confusion regarding when an employee must be charged under this heading of "insubordination", or whether the charge should be under a different heading. Insubordination may be described as resistance to or defiance of authority, disobedience, refusal or failure to obey reasonable and lawful instructions, insolence, cheekiness, rudeness, brining the employer's name into disrepute, and rebellious or mutinous behavior resulting in an actual work stoppage.

The characteristics present in insubordination would be a willful, verbal refusal of instructions, willful disregard of management authority, disrespect, rudeness, rebelliousness or disobedient gestures, manner or attitude, dismissive gestures, walking away, abusive language, knocking the written instruction or notification of enquiry from the senior manager's hand, or taking it and discarding it, addressing the senior manager or director or supervisor in a disrespectful manner.

That should be sufficient to identify whether the offence is in fact insubordination or not. Disciplinary sanctions can include written warning, final written warning or even dismissal – depending on the severity of the offence. Every employee not only has the duty to come to work and be on time and so on, but also the duty to obey all reasonable and lawful instructions. In other words, to do as he/she is told, within the parameters of what is accepted as being a reasonable and lawful instruction, because this really is at the heart of "insubordination".

Quite obviously, any instruction that can be carried out without breaking any statute, common law or company policy is regarded as "a lawful instruction" Equally obviously, this would also be the first requirement of a "reasonable" instruction. But for the instruction to be reasonable, there are other elements required. An instruction can quite easily be lawful, but at the same time it can be unreasonable.

For example, it would be quite lawful for you to instruct an employee to tidy up his work area – but it would be unreasonable if you telephoned him at home at midnight to come to work to do this. So – it is a simple matter to determine whether an instruction is lawful or not, but lets look deeper into the aspect of "reasonable"

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The instruction must be capable of performance

The employee must have the necessary knowledge, skill, capability and ability to carry out the instruction. Instructing an employee to do something which he clearly cannot do is unfair and unreasonable – its really that simple. Don't tell the junior clerk in the accounts dept to carry out a full year-end audit because you want to save on auditor's fees.

Don't tell your yard cleaner to re-paint the 3 story office block. Don't tell your blind switchboard operator to handle the petty cash. If you were to instruct an employee to do something that he/she is clearly not certified to do or not qualified to do, the instruction is not only unreasonable but also unlawful.

The instruction must fall within the ambit of the job
It is not always clear whether or not a particular task falls within the parameters of an employee's job description, when not specifically stated therein. For example, is it the job of the Managing Director's Secretary to make his tea for him? Is it part of the female Dispatch Clerk's job to take phone messages for the Operations Manager in his absence and whom she reports to? Is she a Dispatch Clerk or a Secretary?

So it is a question of reasonable and rational judgment that must be applied here. Also to consider is the question of whether the task in question is merely a "once-off" thing, or is it likely to become a permanent element of that employee's job description? Perhaps the best approach in those "once-off" situations is to use a bit of the old psychology – don't instruct – ASK.

It is far better to say " Jim, we have a problem here and we need your help on this one. Could you please assist us by doing etc …………." This makes Jim feel important – his help is needed. Success depends on him – and he will, 99% of the time, leap eagerly forward to show his ability and his willingness to pull the company out of the compost heap.


Insubordination Labour Attorney Cape Town