Insubordination is the act of willfully disobeying authority. Refusing to perform an action that is unethical or illegal is not insubordination; neither is refusing to perform an action that is not within the scope of authority of the person issuing the order.
Insubordination is generally a punishable offense in hierarchical organizations which depend on people lower in the chain of command doing what they are expected to do.
Insubordination is refusal by a subordinate to obey lawful orders given by a commissioned officer or non commissioned officer (NCO). Refusal of a military officer to obey his (civilian) superiors would also count, although in some nations, the head of the government is (at least technically) also the most superior officer of the military (see for example Commander in Chief). Generally, an officer or soldier is expected to be insubordinate to the point of mutiny if given an unlawful order, however. (see Nuremberg defense)
In the U.S. military, insubordination should not be confused with contempt. While insubordination deals predominately with not following the orders of a superior, contempt in the U.S. military involves the use of contemptuous words against certain appointed or elected officials, as detailed in Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
There have been a number of court cases in the United States which have involved charges of insubordination from the employer with counter charges of infringement of First Amendment rights from the employee. A number of these cases have reached the U.S. Supreme Court usually involving a conflict between an institution of higher education and a faculty member.
In the modern workplace in the Western world, hierarchical power relationships are usually sufficiently internalized so that the issue of formal charges of insubordination are rare. In his book "Disciplined Minds", American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt points out that professionals are trusted to run organizations in the interests of their employers. Because employers cannot be on hand to manage every decision, professionals are trained "to make sure that the subtext of each and every detail of their work advances the right interests – or skewers the disfavored ones” in the absence of overt control.
There have been a number of famous and notorious people who have committed insubordination or publicly objected to an organizational practice.
- George Grosz - soldier in the German Army, World War I, and an artist.
- Desmond Hume - member of the Royal Scots Regiment of the British Army. Was put in military prison for failing to follow orders.
- Douglas MacArthur - US General who was relieved of command by President Harry S. Truman during the Korean War.
- Billy Mitchell - famous aviator, United States Army Air Corps commander during World War I and proponent of air power during the interwar years.
- Albert Pike - charged by the Confederate Army with insubordination.
- Jackie Robinson - US baseball player who was accused of insubordination while in the military, but was exonerated at a court martial.
- Thomas Scott (Orangeman) - executed by Louis Riel for this crime.
- Hunter S. Thompson - famous writer fired from Time Magazine.
- Jeffrey Wigand - Vice President of Brown & Williamson who revealed tobacco industry practices.
- Whistle blower
- Court cases involving insubordination:
- usmilitary.about.com. Article 90—Assaulting or willfully disobeying superior commissioned officer. Accessed December 9, 2010.
- usmilitary.about.com.Article 91—Insubordinate conduct toward warrant officer, NCO, or PO. Accessed December 9, 2010.
- usmilitary.about.com.Article 92—Failure to obey order or regulation. Accessed December 9, 2010.
- usmilitary.about.com.Article 94—Mutiny and sedition. Accessed December 9, 2010.
- usmilitary.about.com.Article 88—Contempt toward officials. Accessed December 9, 2010.
- Imber, Michael and Tyll Van Geel (2001). A Teacher's Guide to Education Law. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. p. 196. ISBN 0-8058-3754-X. Google Book Search. Retrieved on December 10, 2010.
- Kaplin, William A. and Barbar A. Lee (2007). The Law of Higher Education. Jossey-Baass. p. 234. ISBN 978-0-7879-7095-6. Google Book Search. Retrieved on December 10, 2010.
- Schmidt, Jeff (2001). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 41. ISBN 0-7425-1685-7. Google Book Search. Retrieved on December 10, 2010.