Conflict Resolution Tips - Handling Insubordinate Employees

We regularly receive requests from managers to help them (or someone from their management team) deal with "problem" employees. 

These requests typically come to us after other unsuccessful attempts have already been made to deal with the issue either by themselves or HR. Here is one such request for help and the conflict resolution advice we provided to help sort out the issue.

"I work in a small manufacturing company with only about 40 employees.  It is privately owned and the owner has made me one of the supervisors.  I really love my job and the company, but now I have been put in a very awkward position.  The person who runs the shipping and receiving area can be a really hard person to get along with.  You never know what kind of mood he is in.  Sometimes he takes direction and sometimes I get real attitude back.  He actually scares me and now I hesitate to even approach him when I want something and that is affecting my ability to do my job.  By the way, it’s not just me; he is moody with everyone, even the owner.  How can I handle this?"


There are several things happening here that need to be discussed in order to effectively deal with an abusive, harassing, insubordinate employee.

First, in many jurisdictions there are harassment laws in affect and although this worker may not feel that he was harassing the supervisor, simply by the fact that the supervisor felt intimidated by his actions could be construed as harassment, especially if he has been told that he needs to stop the behavior.

A useful definition for harassment is:

Any unwanted directed behaviour that is repeated and/or ongoing. While not in all circumstances, this unwanted behaviour is often vexatious in nature.

Second, as an employee the worker is obligated to take lawful instructions from his supervisors and managers.  

Failure to do so could be considered insubordination and may be grounds for progressive discipline or even dismissal (it is always good to be aware of your local labour laws).

If he does not like what he is told to do, he still must do the job (again, assuming it is lawful) after which he can file a complaint. However, he cannot refuse to carry out the instructions

Finally, where senior management is aware of the worker's behavior and how it is affecting the supervisor, the senior management has an obligation (even when not a legal one) to ensure his employees (including managers) have a safe, harassment free workplace.


Let’s look at how the supervisor can approach this worker without making matters worse. 

  1. The supervisor needed to be clear that she is the supervisor and that she indeed has the authority to direct him.  As long as this is said in a respectful manner (as opposed to "I'm your do what I say!"), the supervisor should be good.  
  2. If the worker gave the supervisor attitude and refused to take direction the supervisor must be clear with her response.  For example, she could say, “Are you telling me that you are refusing to take lawful direction from me?” If the worker said "yes", then the supervisor had grounds to walk straight into the owner’s office and tell him that she wanted this worker sent home and that she needed someone else to do the job. Believe it or not the owner has an obligation to act.  
  3. In order to keep this at a high level it is important that the supervisor not get into an argument with this worker. Instead, the supervisor should simply keep telling him what she needed done and how it made her feel (e.g. disappointed, frustrated, confused, etc.) when he did not do what she needed or when he gave her attitude.


Without knowing his history or if he was unhappy with who he was or his lot in life, he needed to know that if a supervisor or manager asks him to perform a lawful task, he cannot refuse.  Like it or not, he must complete the task. 

However, if he thought it was something that he was not suppose to do according to his job description or qualifications, then he needed to approach the owner (or more senior manager than his direct supervisor) to discuss the situation.

Aside from this, we also addressed attitude.  Too many people these days are going to work and being nasty to those they work with. 

What they don’t know is that this behaviour can be seen as harassment.  This worker clearly need to look at himself and do some self-examination to see how he was contributing to his own bad days.  In the end, only he could change himself and his day.

We often hear discussion of "work-life balance". However, when it comes to a person's behaviour, there is only "life" because there really is no separation between one's work-life and one's home-life. 

An unpleasant or negative situation at home will inevitably affect how a person behaves at work. Likewise, an unpleasant or negative workday will inevitably travel home with the person at the end of the day and affect how the person interacts with their family and friends.

It is for this reason that (a) all work-related sources of stress, worry, and frustration be effectively taken care of at work (and similarly at home); and (b) we believe that providing employees with training on skills and competencies that benefit their home-life is still a strong investment in helping that employee improve their ability to be a focused, productive, high performing employee. 

Get more proven ways to effectively deal with difficult situations involving managers, employees, co-workers or even customers, in our book, "Workplace Wisdom: An Uncommon Common-Sense Approach To Mastering Your Workplace Experience". Click the button below to purchase.