Insubordination is the act of willfully disobeying one's 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 when a serviceman or servicewoman wilfully disobeys the lawful orders of a superior officer. If a military officer were to disobey the lawful orders of his or her civilian superiors, this would also count. For example, the head of state in many countries, is also the most superior officer of the military as the Commander in Chief. (see Civilian control of the military) Generally, an officer or soldier may 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.
Other types of hierarchical structures, especially corporations, may use insubordination as a reason for dismissal or censure of an employee.
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.George Grosz - artist and soldier in the German army.
Desmond Hume (fictional character) - dishonorably discharged (and imprisoned) from the Royal Scots Regiment of the British Army.
Douglas MacArthur - United States General 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 - American baseball player accused of insubordination while in the military, but exonerated at a court martial.
Daniel V. Gallery - United States Navy Admiral whose published articles played a role in the public debate during the Revolt of the Admirals
Thomas Scott (Orangeman) - executed by Louis Riel.
Hunter S. Thompson - American writer, fired from Time Magazine.
Jeffrey Wigand - vice president of Brown & Williamson, revealed tobacco industry practices.