By Dan Gephart, May 16, 2022

Have you ever had an employee challenge your order or refuse an assignment? Has an employee ever replied to an order with the question: What gives you the right to make me do this?

Regarding the latter, the answer is simple — 5 USC 301-302. Here’s what it says:

“The head of an Executive department or military department may prescribe regulations for the government of his department, the conduct of its employees, the distribution and performance of its business … and to [D]elegate to subordinate officials the authority vested in him … by law to take final action on matters pertaining to the employment, direction, and general administration of personnel under his agency.”

The willful and intentional refusal to obey an authorized order of a superior that the superior is entitled to have obeyed is called insubordination. With employees returning to the physical workplace and the vaccine mandate kicking back in at the end of the month, there’s a good chance you will come face-to-face with situations that look like insubordination in the upcoming weeks. For example, maybe you’ll have:

  • An employee who will not get vaccinated.
  • An employee who will not provide proof of vaccination.
  • An employee who won’t wear a mask where required, or won’t follow other safety protocols.

Or here’s another likely possibility: An employee wants to remain in telework status, and continues to stall the process, by not responding to questions.

These are all instances of misconduct. But is it insubordination? Knowing this in advance is critical to whether any action you take will succeed if challenged.

In a recent class of Insubordinate Employees? Don’t Mess With the Wrong Elements, FELTG President Deborah Hopkins explained what it takes for insubordinate charges to succeed, and she shared some alternative charges that may more appropriate. [Want to bring this 60-minute training to your agency? Contact me or send an email to [email protected].]

The important question you need to ask when faced with insubordinate-like actions is this: Is it a failure to comply or a refusal? When you charge an employee with insubordination, you must prove intent.

In the following two examples, one agency proved insubordination, and the other didn’t. This first decision is 20 years old, however, the topic is quite relevant.

Refusal to be Vaccinated

The Kilauea, a ship supplying ammunition to an aircraft carrier operating in the western Pacific Ocean, was headed toward Korea, a high-risk area for biological weapons. The Commander of the Military Sealift Command ordered that all members of the crew – civilian and military – receive vaccinations against anthrax.

Two Navy employees refused. The chief mate, their supervisor, ordered them to report to the Medical Services Officer to be vaccinated. Again, they refused to be vaccinated and the chief mate warned that they would be removed if they did not receive the vaccination. A week later, they were “signed off the ship.”

After investigating the employees’ claims that they were entitled to medical waivers, the agency removed both employees for “failure to obey a direct order to receive mandatory injections of an anthrax immunization vaccine.” The decision was later affirmed by the Board and the Federal Circuit, who found the removals neither excessive nor unauthorized.

“The misconduct constituted insubordination, which this court defines as a willful and intentional refusal to obey an authorized order of a superior officer, which the officer is entitled to have obeyed.”

A Change of Heart

Remember, intent is the key. The Navy employees refused to get vaccinated. And they followed through on their commitment. But what if they changed their minds? They certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so.

That wasn’t the case with the employee in Milner v. Department of Justice, 7 MSPR 37 (1997). The DOJ employee was being questioned as a witness in an investigation. She was ordered to turn over documents to the investigator. She initially refused, citing concerns about her colleague’s confidentiality. But she went home, gave it some more thought, and brought in the information the next day.

The agency wasn’t pleased with the delay and removed the employee for insubordination.

It didn’t hold up. The MSPB found the agency failed to prove a “willful and intentional refusal” because she ultimately complied. The agency could have charged the employee with something else, but they struck out with insubordination. [email protected]

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