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). 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 has been described as a decision to "Give the rules a meaning which no reasonable man could give them and work to that."
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.
Sometimes work-to-rule can be considered by employers as malicious compliance as they pursue legal action against workers.