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|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (July 2013)|
Insubordination is the act of willfully disobeying your superior. 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 is covered under Article 91 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It covers disobeying lawful orders as well as disrespectful language or even striking a superior. The article for insubordination should not be confused with the article for contempt. While Article 91 of the UCMJ deals predominately with disobeying or disrespecting a superior and applies to enlisted members and warrant officers, Article 88 involves the use of contemptuous words against certain appointed or elected officials and only applies to commissioned officers.
There have been 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.