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Work-to-rule is an industrial action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of their contract, and precisely follow all safety or other regulations, which may cause a slowdown or decrease in productivity, as they are no longer working during breaks or during unpaid extended hours and weekends (checking email, for instance).[1][2] Such an action is considered less disruptive than a strike or lockout, and obeying the rules is less susceptible to disciplinary action. Notable examples have included nurses refusing to answer telephones, teachers refusing to work for free at night and during weekends and holidays, and police officers refusing to issue citations. Refusal to work overtime, travel on duty, or sign up to other tasks requiring employee assent are other manifestations of using work-to-rule as industrial action.

It was described by Sir John Donaldson as a decision to "Give the rules a meaning which no reasonable man could give them and work to that."[3]

Sometimes the term "rule-book slowdown" is used in a slightly different sense than "work-to-rule": the former involves applying to-the-letter rules that are normally set aside or interpreted less literally to increase efficiency; the latter, refraining from activities which are customary but not required by rule or job description, but the terms may be used synonymously.

Work-to-rules can be misconstrued as malicious even when it is only a removal of good-will, such as employees insisting on taking all legally entitled breaks, or refusing a request to work unpaid overtime.[4]

Sometimes work-to-rule can be considered by employers as malicious compliance as they pursue legal action against workers. While not legally enforceable under minimum statutory law, employers may enforce customized employment contract terms that the employee agreed to:

  • Overtime is waived in part, in whole, or converted to time-in-lieu
  • Breaks are set by management
  • Job description includes "ad-hoc task" or "as assigned"
  • Termination for any reason

They may also take standard forms of action especially where custom terms were not negotiated during the offer:

  • Warning and noting employee file for professional misconduct or insubordination
  • Reassigning employee to insignificant, routine, or mundane tasks


  1. ^ Gareth Morgan (1998). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. p. 165. ISBN 0-7619-1752-7. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  2. ^ "Air Canada Hit By Work-to-Rule", The Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, pp. 1–2, 9 December 1968, retrieved 20 June 2012 
  3. ^ Secretary of State v. ASLEF (No. 2) [1972] 2 All E.R. 949 at 959 (N.I.R.C.) per Sir John Donaldson. Cited in William Twining and David Miers (2010). How to Do Things with Rules. Cambridge University Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-521-19549-2. Retrieved 26 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Campbell, Dennis (October 13, 2014). "NHS unions tell Hunt: talk to us or face further strikes". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 December 2014. 

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