There has been much confusion among employers as to what constitutes insubordination and how it can be accurately identified.
Insubordination is literally defined as “defiance of authority”. This would indicate that an insubordinate employee would be one who is challenging the authority of another employee who acts in a supervisory /managing capacity over them.
Insubordination takes the form of wilful refusal of a reasonable instruction either verbally, or in the form of an action. For instance, taking a written instruction and throwing it away, or verbally saying “you can do this yourself” in the presence of the person who has issued that instruction. However, the instruction needs to be lawful and reasonable, if it is expected to be completed at all.
Insubordination often is confused with insolence. One of the best ways to understand the difference between the two is to look at both insubordination and insolence in the context of the company structure and the position of the employee acting insubordinately or in an insolent manner. The subtle difference is clearly explained in this extract of an article on the matter:
“Insubordination applies only in an upward direction and can only be perpetrated by a junior towards a senior. Disrespect, on the other hand, can apply upwards and downwards. For example, it would be disrespectful for a manager to shout at an employee and tell him/her to “get out of the office”. Disrespect is therefore not necessarily linked to a person’s position of authority but can also be linked to one’s human dignity, irrespective of position within the organisation”
However in the case between Sekete v Temoso Technologies 8A College (2004) 13 CCMA 8.18.7 the commissioner held that if insolence was serious and wilful, it would take the form of gross insubordination. Clearly the commissioner did not differentiate between insolence/disrespect and insubordination in this instance.
In SACCAWU & another v Shoprite Checkers  12 BLLR 87 (IC) the Court held that insubordination needs to be of a serious nature and needs to have been deliberate if it is to justify dismissal.
In conclusion, the matter between Sikhakhane v Okapi (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd (2007) 16 MEIBC 8.18.1 is referred to. The crux of a healthy employment relationship is the fiduciary duty of the employee to obey reasonable and lawful instructions issued by the employer.
Failure to obey a reasonable and lawful instruction will lead to insubordination and the seriousness of this will accordingly determine whether dismissal is an appropriate measure.
Israelstam, I. (Fine line between disrespect and insubordination) Retrieved from: http://www.labourguide.co.za/general/346-fine-line-between-disrespect-and-insubordination
Case References: www.ccma.org.za/UploadedMedia/CCMAil-December2007(2).doc
Article by: Ewan O’Reilly
CEO Legal Assistant – Pretoria