Insubordination In The Workplace: Can You Be Terminated With Just Cause?

If you are accused of insubordination at work, your employer may consider they have just cause to terminate your employment immediately. As a result, you may be dismissed without notice or pay in lieu of notice. However, insubordination does not warrant a just cause termination in all circumstances. In this article we discuss the definition of insubordination and how to deal with accusations of insubordination at work.

What is the meaning of insubordination?

Insubordination is the employee’s intentional refusal to obey an employer’s reasonable and lawful orders. There are three elements to insubordination:

  1. There is a clear reasonable and lawful order;
  2. The order is given by a person in authority; and
  3. The order is intentionally disobeyed by the employee.

Insubordination differs from insolence, which is an employee’s derisive, disrespectful, or abusive language, generally directed at a superior such as a manager or supervisor. 

What are some examples of insubordination?

Some examples of insubordination include:

  • An employee who refuses to perform a necessary job task when ordered to do so; 
  • An employee who refuses to come into work; 
  • An employee’s failure to seek permission to take a leave; 
  • An employee who refuses to remain on shift; or
  • An employee who refuses to attend a medical examination. 

What is not considered insubordination?

The following examples are not considered insubordination:

  • An employee who refuses to perform an action that they are not required to do (eg an action outside the scope of the employee’s job duties);
  • An employee who misunderstands instructions resulting in their failure to perform an action;
  • An employee who refuses to perform an unethical or illegal action;
  • An employee does not comply with an order that is not reasonable in the light of the norms of contemporary society;
  • An employee who refuses to perform an action issued by someone who does not have authority; 
  • An employee who refuses unsafe work; or 
  • An employee’s lack of consent to a change in remuneration.

Alternatively, if there is a reasonable explanation for the disobedience, an employer should not terminate an employee for insubordination. Instead, it may be valuable for the employer to listen to the employee’s explanation and work out a solution to avoid it happening again in the future.  

Can I be fired for insubordination?

If the insubordination was minor or a single isolated incident, an employer may have the duty to engage in progressive discipline before terminating the employee with cause. Progressive discipline might be a verbal warning, written warning, or suspension. The discipline must be proportionate to the misconduct with the aim to correct the behaviour.

If the insubordination was very serious or had become a documented pattern, it may constitute cause for dismissal if it amounts to complete disregard of the employer’s proper orders. A single act of insubordination may very rarely warrant termination. To warrant dismissal for one act of insubordination, the conduct must be wilful and in relation to a matter of substance. For example, in the case of Frunchak v McAleera loan manager was dismissed for insubordination when he extended loans without pre-approval, despite his employer’s orders. The Court upheld the dismissal and found that the conduct related to a matter of substance.

The threshold to establish just cause is extremely high. The existence of just cause is decided on a case-by-case basis. The courts consider the circumstances surrounding the incident, such as the employee’s length of service and disciplinary record. The onus is on the employer to show that the employee breached the employment contract to such an extent that it is no longer possible to save the relationship. For example, in the case of Weibe v Central Transport, a violation of a prohibition on drinking alcoholic beverages did not constitute insubordination or just cause for dismissal when the individual had a good and lengthy employment record.

For more information on this topic, watch Monkhouse Law’s video on just cause termination. Employment Lawyer Andrew Monkhouse speaks about just cause and when an employee can be terminated without any compensation.

Monkhouse Law is an employment law firm in Toronto with a particular focus on workers’ issues. If you are an employee who has been terminated with cause or an employer planning to terminate an employee with cause, it is important that you consult with an experienced employment lawyer. We offer a free 30-minute phone consultation. Contact us today.

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