This week’s reader is a university student who doesn’t know how to handle a very difficult boss – and wants to know what his rights are as an employee.

Working as a waiter over weekends and in his free time, our reader says that his employer expects staff to perform tasks which fall outside their job descriptions. If employees refuse or question him, the restaurant owner becomes “extremely angry”, accuses his employees of insubordination and threatens to fire them.

Since the staff mainly comprise students, who depend on their wages to pay tuition fees, they usually just “do as they are told” for fear of losing their jobs.

Our reader says the situation worsened a few weeks ago, when he was instructed to perform a task that was not only outside his job scope, but which he had no idea how to do. Concerned that he or other staff members might “get hurt” owing to our reader’s lack of experience, he told his boss that he could not perform the task.

The boss lost his temper, told our reader that he was being insubordinate and disrespectful and then threatened to fire him.

I often come across these cases and there seems to be confusion among employers about the definition of insubordination.

Insubordination can be described as resistance to or defiance of authority, refusal or failure to obey reasonable and lawful instructions, insolence, cheekiness, rudeness, bringing the employer’s name into disrepute and rebellious or mutinous behaviour.

An “insubordinate” employee would wilfully and verbally refuse instructions, completely disregard management authority, show disrespect, rudeness, rebelliousness, a bad attitude, make dismissive gestures, walk away, use abusive language, knock a written instruction or notification of enquiry from a senior manager’s hand, take it and discard it or address the senior manager, director or supervisor in a disrespectful manner.

Employees are duty-bound to report to work and, while on duty, to obey all reasonable and lawful instructions. Obviously, any instruction which doesn’t break a statute, common law or company policy is a lawful one – but for that instruction to be reasonable, several other elements come into play.

An employee must have the necessary knowledge, skill, capacity and ability to carry out the instruction, so being expected to do something he clearly cannot do is unfair and unreasonable.

Bear in mind, too, that job descriptions cannot outline every task expected of an employee – and they don’t replace company or operating procedures.

So, reasonable and rational judgment must be applied. Consider this – is the task a “once-off” or likely to be a permanent element of that employee’s job description?

Disputes must be discussed privately and calmly and focus purely on issues surrounding the task. An employee’s unreasonable refusal to perform a task could lead to disciplinary action, but if he or she has not carried out the task before, a consultation and possible revision of his or her job description is necessary.

Unless our reader can show good and valid reasons to the contrary, he must carry out his task or face a possible charge of misconduct.

Recurrence of refusal calls for a verbal warning, followed in the third instance by a final written warning and even dismissal.

However, I urge employers to counsel their staff, noting who can and cannot issue instructions – and keeping a record of the counselling session.

Employers should also address the subject of additional tasks at interview stage. That said, business requirements do change, so this is not always possible.

Send your labour and injury on duty questions to

Booysen & Rossouw Attorneys in Port Elizabeth specialises in labour related legislation. The firm also covers injury on duty cases as well as all other aspects of the law.

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