freeimage-4383658-webIn the typical workplace, there are often “vertical” relationships, meaning, employees who are told they report to a certain supervisor or manager, who oversees those particular employees and is responsible for them. One of the top questions that come up employment workplaces where there are one or more vertical relationships is what happens when the manager and the employee conflict on issues of opinion, judgment, or instructions given to the employee. Can an employee be fired for insubordination, or better put, just not doing what his/her supervisor says or wants?

As with most issues in the legal world, the answer is, “it depends.” What does it depend on? Read on to get an overview of whether insubordination can be sufficient to justify termination and if not, whether firing an employee for insubordination can constitute wrongful termination.

Is the Employment “At Will” or Through an Employment Contract

The starting point is usually determining whether the employee’s work is being performed pursuant to an employment contract or whether it is at-will. If there is no employment contract, it is usually a signal that the employment relationship is “at-will” meaning, that the employer can hire, fire, demote, promote, and otherwise terminate the employee-employer relationship at its discretion. The employer does not even have to have a reason to let the employee go. Under these kinds of circumstances, employee insubordination can be as good of a reason as any to let go of an employee.

On the other hand, if the employer-employee relationship is governed by a employment contract that was signed by the employee before the employee began work, then there will generally be provisions specifying what grounds constitute “just cause” for the employee’s termination.  In some types of employment contracts, employees can only be terminated for cause, or for “gross negligence,” “wrongful acts,” or affirmative wrongdoing. Depending on the language in the agreement, simple insubordination would probably not be substantial enough to justify the termination.

Acts of Insubordination Resulting in Policy Violations

Sometimes if an employee refuses to take orders from their supervisors or disrupts the workplace, it can involve more than just a difference of an opinion. Some types of employee insubordination generally must  be met with termination, for example:

  • Criminal conduct at the workplace
  • Intentional injury/assault/battery to coworkers, colleagues or customers at the workplace
  • Violation of federal, state, or local law at the workplace
  • Sexual abuse, molestation, harassment, discrimination, etc., of customers, coworkers, colleagues, etc.

Employers tend to fire employees whose insubordination has resulted in a danger to others or violation of law, on the basis that doing nothing could be construed as condoning the conduct.

On the other hand, if the insubordination concerns something very minor (for example, using one font on a document when the boss says to use a different font), it usually will not result in the type of friction that causes employers to consider letting the employee go.

The Grey Area and Overlap with Unlawful Employment Practices

The grey area when it comes to terminating an employee for insubordination is when the “insubordination” is really a pretext for wanting to fire the employee for something entirely different.  For example:

  • An employer wants to fire an employee for taking too much time off from work due to a medical condition (which is illegal) and waits for the employee to disagree on one thing and then terminates the employee citing “insubordination”
  • An employee has complained to an employer about being harassed at work on basis of race, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, maternity status, etc.  Viewing the employee as a “problem employee,” the boss decides it is best to fire the employee, and again, uses a very minor item as the basis for the termination, citing “insubordination.”

In these two examples, there is clearly more going on behind the scenes rather than simple “insubordination.”  It would be legally inaccurate to call either of the scenarios above an “insubordination firing’ because there were deeper motives at work.

Getting Legal Help to Evaluate a Wrongful Termination

If you are reading this article, you are either probably wondering whether in your particular situation, it was legal or illegal for the employee to be terminated for insubordination, or on the verge of being terminated for insubordination. The answer, however, is that it is really going to depend heavily on the unique facts of your case. If you are in California, we suggest that you give us a call to discuss your potential case.

Consultations to clients who call in for help are always free and you could have a much better understanding of the best path to take in as little as 15 minutes. Call today for a free, no-risk, and no-charge consultation and let us share our experience with employment matters with you.

readreviewssgAXIS Legal Counsel is an employment law firm representing clients in numerous kinds of lawsuits and disputes involving some of the nation’s largest employers. Whether it is sexual harassment, other kinds of harassment, discrimination, race discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, medical/disability discrimination, racial harassment, retaliation, hostile work environment, wage/hour, workplace bullying, or other claims, AXIS Legal Counsel is experienced in the field of employment and labor law and focused on providing high-quality legal service.

For information on retaining AXIS Legal Counsel to represent you or a loved one with an employee rights’ claim, contact or call (213) 403-0130 for a confidential consultation, or visit our Employee Rights Practice or Individual Rights portal. AXIS is a Los Angeles, California law firm that provides victims of labor and employment law violations with aggressive representation to pursue the maximum extent of their rights.


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