Do You Always Have to Follow Your Superior's Orders?

If you belong to the United States Military, or act as an agent for most other government entities, you are expected to follow a chain of command (COC) and respect the orders of your superiors. There are also times when you must obey the commands of a superior officer or agent from a government branch that is not even your own. The COC is meant to keep the military and the federal government operating as efficiently as possible, and breaking the COC through insubordination is considered a serious violation.

Three forms of insubordination include:

  • Assault: If a service member attempts to harm or abuse a superior officer – called “offering violence” in some legal statutes – they have committed insubordination.
  • Disrespect: Openly disrespecting a superior officer or agent, whether that superior is present at the time of the disrespect or not, is also considered insubordination.
  • Disobeying: When a superior gives a lawful order, it must be followed to the best of a soldier’s or agent’s abilities. Intentionally failing or ignoring that order is insubordination.

Defense Against Claims of Insubordination

Does the presence of insubordination statutes in military and federal employment law mean that a superior’s orders can never be disobeyed? Not necessarily. There are actually situations in which following a direct order would be the wrong, immoral, or irresponsible choice, and disobeying it would not be considered punishable insubordination. There are also defenses to actual insubordination that could mitigate or eliminate any potential penalties.

Insubordination may be excusable or lessened in severity if:

  • It was not commonly known that the superior officer was indeed superior to the accused individual.
  • The superior issued an order that was not lawful, such as stealing confidential information or harming innocent civilians in a warzone.
  • The superior was no longer deserving of the respect of a reasonable individual; this defense is most commonly applied to assault insubordination cases in which the superior physically strikes the subordinate first.

With these defenses and circumstances in mind, it can be concluded that you do not always need to follow the order of a supervisor or superior if you are employed by the federal government or military. In regards to being issued an unlawful command, you actually have a duty to disobey it if it is blatantly illegal and harmful.

Penalties for insubordination can include dishonorable discharge, reduction or removal of your pay, and confinement or incarceration. If you have been accused of unlawfully or disrespectfully denying an official order from a superior, you need to work quickly to defend your reputation, career, and future wellbeing. Contact The Law Firm of John P. Mahoney, Esq., Attorneys at Law, PLLC and our Washington D.C. federal employment lawyers today to get an AV Preeminent® Rated by Martindale-Hubbell® law firm on your side.