It’s rare to find a workplace without malcontents who revel in defying management and sowing discord. It also is troubling to see the pervasive impotence among many Canadian managers who despair over their perceived inability to deal with recalcitrant staff. It seems they have surrendered authority over their workplaces, and their directives often go unheeded.

It’s time employers reclaim the prerogative to run their businesses. But first, they must assimilate the notion that a workplace is not a democracy. It is not for employees to debate the wisdom of their employer’s directives. Staff who challenge or disobey management, after a point, can be lawfully fired for cause.

Employers can remove unrest from the workplace and substantially save on severance costs simply by dismissing insubordinate employees. Companies should consider the following questions before firing staff for subordination:

  • Is the order lawful? (Do not expect an employee to comply with an order to break the law. For example, a job recruiter can safely ignore a directive to hire only young or white employees. Similarly, a radio announcer could violate a directive to fix a contest.)
  • How reasonable is the directive? (An instruction is reasonable as long as it advances an employer’s legitimate business interest. Neil Billows sued his employer Canarc Forest Products after he was terminated for violating policies on inventory control and credit limits. In dismissing Billows lawsuit, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled he was insubordinate in breaching his employer’s reasonable directives on conducting business.)
  • Is the instruction within the employee’s job functions? (An employee sometimes has the right to refuse an order based on job functions, as the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel recently learned to its chagrin. As general manager, Judy Adams was given a direct order on how to prepare the hotel’s budget. She refused and was terminated for insubordination. Adams then sued her employer. Adams won even though the court determined she was noncompliant. Madame Justice Catherine Wedge of the B.C. Supreme Court found Adams had the right to refuse to prepare a budget she said was neither reasonable nor achievable based on her job functions and the hotel’s accounting policies.)
  • Is the order clear? (Leave no room for doubt. In one of my first trials, I acted for Philippine Airlines. Its Toronto manager at the time, Gordon Donaldson, ignored an explicit directive not to extend credit to a particular travel agency. The airline suffered serious losses when that agency went bankrupt. Donaldson unsuccessfully sued the airline after he was fired. Donaldson’s termination was upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal because he violated an unambiguous order.)
  • Is it related to a significant issue? (Insubordination must be linked to a matter of significance to the employment relationship. Ignoring a minor directive will not amount to just cause.)
  • Is there a reasonable excuse? (An employee’s reasons for disobeying orders should be scrutinized. Kevin Mackinnon declined to sign an affidavit on behalf of his employer, Lewis Energy Management. His reasons for doing so – lack of knowledge about the legal process and exposure to potential legal proceedings – were brushed aside by the company and he was terminated for insubordination. He won his lawsuit after the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the legitimacy of his queries justified his refusal.)