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This is quite common in the workplace – it may be defined as any conduct by an employee that poses an unlawful and deliberate challenge to the authority of management. This will include the refusal to obey lawful and reasonable instructions, cheekiness, rudeness, any sort of rebellious behaviour, inciting other staff to “work to the book” or refuse to obey instructions, abusive language, disorderly behaviour, and things of that nature.

It will also include any rebellious or disobedient gestures, rebellious manner or attitude, knocking a written instruction or any other document from a superior’s hand or from the hand of any other person with authority, addressing a senior person in a disrespectful manner, and so on.

Refusal to sign for a warning form, or refusal to sign for a notice of a disciplinary hearing, is not insubordination. This is because there is no requirement in labour law for the employee to sign such a document – it only needs to be handed to the employee in the presence of a witness, and a witness will certify that the document was handed to the employee.

What to look for?

The first and most important thing to do is to obtain a statement from the aggrieved person.

This is so that you can establish what instruction was given, or the other circumstances of the matter, and exactly what the accused employee said or did to the superior or manager who issued the instruction. They are usually witnesses to this type of behaviour – identify witnesses and take statements.

If possible, if the accused is willing to be interviewed, then interview them and either take a statement or make notes of what they said.

Examine the site where the incident occurred – this will enable you to identify witnesses who may have been reluctant to come forward. Make sure that the instruction given falls reasonably within the ambit of the accused employee’s job description. Prepare the charge sheet.

What must the investigator prove at the disciplinary enquiry?

Bring the evidence or witnesses to show that the person who issued the instruction was authorised to do so and that the instruction was reasonable and lawful. Bring evidence to show that the refusal or the challenge to authority was wilful, deliberate, and unlawful, and was serious.

Bring evidence to show what effect the employee’s action would have had on the other staff if it was not addressed by disciplinary action. For example, a breakdown of discipline or a mockery of management and management instructions. Show that there was a breakdown in the employment relationship because of the employee’s unacceptable behaviour.

Emphasize that mutual trust and respect are essential in any employment relationship and that in particular the element of respect in this employment relationship has been destroyed – thus it cannot reasonably be expected to continue with this employment relationship.


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