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Insubordination or legitimate gripe? It’s important to know the difference

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

When one of your employees objects to alleged illegal or discriminatory conduct in the company, you can’t simply fire or demote the person. That would be considered illegal retaliation.

Still, that doesn’t mean such employees have the right to be insubordinate, rude and nasty.

As this new case shows, there’s a fine line between voicing opposition to a company practice and challenging superiors in an insolent way.

Recent case: Jacque Johnson managed the Charlotte operations of the Mechanics & Farmers Bank. The Charlotte division was running well below expected revenues, and the bank blamed Johnson for the problems. Johnson was placed on a performance-improvement plan. Things still didn’t improve.

Then one day, two of Johnson’s subordinates got into a heated argument at work. An outside investigator determined that one employee was to blame. So the bank ordered Johnson to fire the subordinate.

Johnson disagreed and refused to fire the employee.

Instead, Johnson demanded to see the investigation file. He told his supervisor in an e-mail that the outside investigator was unprofessional and should receive training in “the logical analysis of data.”

The bank fired Johnson for insubordination. He sued, countering that he had engaged in protected conduct by opposing an allegedly illegal decision to fire a subordinate.

But the court tossed out his case, saying no objective information supported Johnson’s position. Plus, it said the tone of Johnson’s comments and e-mail was “unmistakably insubordinate and insolent.” (Johnson v. Mechanics & Farmers Bank, No. 07-1725, 4th Cir., 2009)

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