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HR 101 – What to do When . . . Your Staff Are Insubordinate

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Please note that this pertains to South African Labour relations, The Basic Conditions of Employment Act and Best Practice Requirements.

I tell you – there is some justice in the world. Let’s start at the beginning – what is “insubordination”? Well, the dictionary says “disobedient and rebellious”. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, usually it can be, however, that said there is also a little word called “insolence” and insolence should not be confused with insubordination because this is where the whole issue could become quite confusing. The dictionary says insolence is “offensively contemptuous, insulting”. Very similar, but also very different and the courts take this view as well.

So let’s bring in the protagonists. Mike owns a small retail store in a busy mall and George is his manager/sales assistant. Mike is busy doing the administration and the store seems to be a bit busy but there are moments of quiet.

1st example:- Mike looks up, sees no one in the store and asks George to bring him the lever arch file entitled “Invoices” – George replies, “I’m busy right now” – that is considered insolence. George hasn’t refused to comply with the request/instruction, but he has been rude.

2nd example:- Mike looks up, sees no one in the store and asks George to bring him the lever arch file entitled “Invoices” – George replies, “Get it yourself” – now this would be considered both insolent and insubordinate. You see George has implied that he will not comply with the request/instruction and he has been rude.

3rd example:- Mike looks up, sees no one in the store and asks George to bring him the lever arch file entitled “Invoices” – George ignores him. Mike asks if George heard him, George confirms that he did. Mike repeats the request and George now refuses to fetch the file saying “it’s not my job”. Now that is straightforward insubordination – George has categorically refused to comply with what is a reasonable request/instruction.

Now here’s the thing – insolence is not a dismissible offence, but insubordination is. The rules still apply though. In the above example, if this is George’s 1st offence, you would not be able to dismiss him, but you could discipline him.

You see subordination is seen to be at the very core of the relationship between the employee and the employer. In the instances where you have a healthy subordinate relationship between the employee and the employer, it means that there is an obligation that is maintained. Instructions given by the employer are complied with and the employer is respected. In any business, the employee is expected to “obey” and be “respectful” to the employer. Businesses would not be able to function properly if this were not the case.

One of the things that the courts really look at when dealing with cases of insubordination, is whether the employee (in this case George) intended to challenge the employer (in this case Mike’s) authority.

In this particular case, the insubordination would be considered minor as there would be no “loss to the company” and merely an irritation to Mike. A disciplinary with a warning would more than suffice.

If Mike had to leave the store to attend a meeting and at the point of departure, instructed George to “Lock up and arm the alarm” and George either refused or just did not do it and as a result of this, the store was ransacked and there was a significant loss of stock, Mike would be well within his rights to discipline and find George guilty of gross insubordination – which is a dismissible offence, and then dismiss George.

Make sure that you understand the difference though. If in doubt consult with a reputable Labour Attorney. It will save you money in the long run.