Finance News & Insights

The CFO’s guide to handling insubordination

To stay compliant in most situations, finance professionals can turn to specific guidelines: company policies, IRS rules, contract terms.

But managerial situations can be more complicated, especially when it comes to staff insubordination and disciplinary action.

The reason: There are no official or legal guidelines on insubordination, explain the experts at Alexander Hamilton Institute. So, as a company leader, handling it correctly often comes down to using your knowledge, experience and best judgement.

To help guide your decisions, these experts have provided a roadmap.

What constitutes insubordination?

It’s a word you’ve seen thrown around in performance discussions and legal disputes. But what exactly does it come down to?

Insubordination is described as “outright disobedient or disrespectful” behavior toward a manager by the legal pros at UpCounsel.

Similarly, the Alexander Hamilton Institute says insubordination occurs when a staffer refuses to follow a “reasonable order” from a manager, even though:

  1. The staffer understood the instructions.
  2. The order was in line with their duties.
  3. There was no good reason for the staffer to refuse the order.

If all three of those criteria are met, the situation likely constitutes insubordination, and you or another manager has a right to take disciplinary action.

A few exceptions

Like most guidelines, there are exceptions to the rule. An unwilling staffer doesn’t always equate an insubordinate staffer.

Before disciplining someone for insubordination, you know it’s important to delve a little deeper into their resistance. Some questions to consider:

  • Was the order clearly a direct command? There’s a difference between “I want you to …” and “Can you …” The first is an order, the second insinuates there’s an option.
  • Were there extenuating circumstances? Did they have a legitimate reason for refusing? Perhaps one you can’t see or didn’t consider before?
  • Did they refuse because they believed there was a risk involved? This could include safety risks, legal risks, ethical risks, etc.

Your best approach

If you or another finance department manager can confidently say a staffer is insubordinate, here are a few tips to address it:

  • Line up the facts. Make sure you’ve gathered all the information (the who, what, where, when and why) you need to proceed with a disciplinary decision.
  • Look to the past. Does the staffer have a history of insubordination or other workplace issues? How were they dealt with? Or is this a first-time occurrence? This could influence the severity or type of discipline.
  • Stick to your company’s standard. Consider how other insubordinate employees have been dealt with at your company. Your discipline must be consistent with your policy and past actions, the experts remind.
  • Be explicit. Make no room for misperception or misunderstanding when talking with the staffer. Speak clearly and directly, without bias or emotions getting in the mix.


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