Insubordination vs. Insolence – how to distinguish and address ambiguity

Employers and Human resources personnel experience a common problem distinguishing between insubordination and insolence.

Let’s first define the two terms in order to eradicate the grey area that exists:

  • Insubordination refers to the intentional refusal to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable orders.
  • Insolence refers to cheeky, rude, abusive or contemptuous language, generally directed at a superior.

Judging by these definitions alone, it seems there’s no ambiguity differentiating on these two terms, but in practical situations, it is not as straightforward.

Some employers often make the mistake of drafting insubordination and insolence in one charge without differentiating or making it two different charges, such as in this case below:

In Commercial Catering & Allied Workers Union of SA & Another v Wooltru LTD t/a Woolworths (Randburg) (1989) 10 ILJ 311 (IC), the employee had been dismissed for “insubordination and insolence”. The employee had had an altercation with her store manager during which, when he enquired after the stock on her shelves, she stated, “why are you checking on me?” She was called into his office, where she opened and searched the manager’s cupboard without his permission. The employee was then charged with “insolence and insubordination” at a disciplinary enquiry and was dismissed.

The court found that she may have been insolent, but certainly not insubordinate. The employee had been issued in the past with a final written warning for insolence, which was nine months old. The court took into account the fact that the warning should have only been valid for 6 months and that the final written warning had relied on unrelated offences. The court came to the conclusion that the insolent behaviour of the employee did not constitute a fair and valid reason for her dismissal, and compensation was awarded to the employee.

Clearly, the employer should have had two separate charges in the above mentioned case:

  • insubordination charge for when the employee searched the manager’s cupboard without permission(not obeying superior’s lawful and reasonable order’s)
  • Second charge should be for insolence when the employee stated “why are you checking up on me”(attitude and cheekiness)

In conclusion it is pretty clear that insubordination is on the serious end of the spectrum, in the sense that it’s based on disobedience, outright resistance and challenging of authority.

Hence the sanction for a transgression such as insubordination is always harsh on any employer’s disciplinary code.

On the other hand, insolence does seem to be less of a serious misconduct but should not be taken lightly by no means, mainly because little issues do tend to lead to more serious behavioural issues.


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