What is Work to Rule? 5 Facts You Need To Know

A concise guide on working to rule, or initiating industrial action without losing pay by obeying your employer’s rules so carefully that nothing is accomplished.

What is Work to Rule?

Work to rule is a labor tactic that is occasionally used as a way for employees to register their discontent with their bosses. In a work-to-rule environment, workers stay on the job and do each and every activity that is directly related with their job description. However, the individual no longer does any auxiliary work that may be relevant to the job’s main responsibilities.

What is Work to Rule?

Understanding Work to Rule

Employees often do duties that are not directly relevant to the job description of the role they hold. For instance, the job description for an Accounts Payable clerk may not expressly contain activities related to assisting with the creation of client bills.

In a work-to-rule environment, the AP clerk would conduct the Payable activities deemed directly linked with the employment, but would refrain from touching the Receivables. Thus, the clerk is theoretically less likely to be penalized for noncompliance or failing to execute the minimum necessary to keep the employment since he or she is executing the minimum required by contract.

Work to rule is occasionally used when workers are dissatisfied with their working conditions but do not intend to conduct a walkout or force the firm to close. Work to rule is based on the premise that it is possible to make a point by declining to complete responsibilities that go beyond the core job description.

Unfinished ancillary duties may demonstrate to the employer how much work goes beyond the fundamental conditions of the employment contract, so encouraging employers to listen to employee needs and work toward a solution that is acceptable to both sides.

It should be emphasized, however, that not all employers respond well to the work to rule method. Numerous employee contracts now include phrases that allow for a wider interpretation of a particular position’s responsibilities, often enabling the employer to add activities that were not clearly included in the original contract.

When this occurs, the employer may consider that work to rule constitutes a breach of the employment contract and fire the employee for noncompliance.

What is Work to Rule?

When this is the case, the employer may determine that work to rule is in fact a violation of the work contract and terminate the employee on the basis of non-compliance.

When this is the case, the employer may determine that work to rule is in fact a violation of the work contract and terminate the employee on the basis of non-compliance.

Example Work to Rule

Examples include nurses refusing to answer the phone, teachers refusing to work for free at night, on weekends, and during holidays, and police officers refusing to issue fines. Additional expressions of work-to-rule as industrial action include refusal to work overtime, travel on duty, or sign up for other activities needing employee consent.

Conditions About Work to Rule

Sometimes “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 that are customary but not required by rule or job description, although the terms can be used interchangeably.

Employers that seek legal action against employees may sometimes view work-to-rule as malevolent compliance. While not legally enforceable under minimum statutory legislation, employers may enforce the following employee-agreed-upon employment contract terms:

  • Time-and-a-half is waived in part, in its whole, or converted to time-in-lieu.
  • Management sets break times
  • The job description contains the phrases “as assigned” or “ad hoc.”
    a dismissal for whatever cause
  • They may also pursue regular kinds of action, particularly if bespoke conditions were not established during the offer phase:
  • Caution and notation in employee’s file for professional misconduct or disobedience
    Reassigning an employee to unimportant, dull, or repetitive duties.

What is Work to Rule?

FAQs: What is “work to rule”?

What is a “work to rule” labor action?

“Labor to rule” implies that we will continue to perform what we are employed and paid to do – the “rule” being our union contract and letters of appointment – but we will immediately and forever halt the vast voluntary work that we offer to the institution. We shall continue to adhere strictly to the deal.

The labor action of “work to rule” is not a strike. Neither is there a slowing or halt in activity. It is only a proof that we are well aware of the degree to which our institution not only benefits from, but also cannot exist without the uncompensated labour that we and our staff colleagues conduct on a daily basis. Work to rule is a legal, nonviolent form of labor action.

What kinds of work is this type of action likely to involve?

All faculty members may provide instances of the additional work they undertake, most of it on a regular basis and others for brief durations. You may be requested or expected to engage in uncompensated overload work tasks that colleagues in other departments or colleges have never been asked to do, and vice versa.

This makes it impossible to offer examples that apply to everyone, however the examples provided below should give you a rough concept of what this kind of job entails. From there, you may find a list that pertains to you personally, as well as additional instances that may be typical of (and potentially exclusive to) your department and/or institution.

The following are some examples of the kind of work that many faculty members have been required to complete (and that most of us, if not all of us, really perform) and that are consequently suitable for suspension under a “work to rule” action:

  • We will not react to emails, phone calls, text messages, or other contacts from our chairs, deans, or other administrators outside of normal business hours, despite the fact that some believe that professors should be accessible and responsive at all times of the day and night. For many of us, these emails are excessive, invasive, and oppressive, and the expectation to answer instantly has become a major source of stress at work.
  • We shall not volunteer to serve on committees or offer professional services to the institution in excess of our contractually obligated responsibilities.
  • We shall not engage in fundraising, marketing, recruitment, strategic planning, or accreditation efforts on behalf of the school, nor in any other administrative initiatives, where doing so would exceed our contractually stipulated responsibilities.
  • Work that represents overload but is not rewarded will be suspended under work-to-rule, even though it would be permissible as part of a contractual assignment.

What is Work to Rule?

How would a “work to rule” action impact our students?

We anticipate that the effect on pupils will be negligible. Reasons why:

While most of the uncompensated labor of professors (and staff) is undertaken for the direct benefit of our students, we recognize and respect that the vast majority of faculty and staff would never, even during a work-to-rule action, withdraw from work that directly benefits students.

However, it is disappointing that, rather than recognizing our commitment to our students, many members of the administration have come to expect and some may even feel entitled to the generous contributions of faculty (and staff) time, energy, and labor, including the extensive and often difficult emotional labor, that go far beyond what we are hired and paid to do but which many of us regularly perform in the course of our service to our students.

However, a significant portion of this effort is a consequence of inadequate support structures and resources to fulfill the requirements of our students and to support the work of teachers and staff. The administration is urged to prioritize these needs more effectively.

Is it safe for pre-tenure and term-appointed faculty to participate in a work-to-rule action? How can tenured faculty help to protect those who don’t have tenure?

It is crucial to reiterate that “work to rule” is a legal labor action. It is not a strike, slowdown, or halt of work.

Nevertheless, we may understand the probable fear of coworkers who lack tenure. And although we think that the more faculty members who join in any labor action, the safer all of our colleagues will be, regardless of tenure status, we recognize that term-appointed academics may feel more exposed to nonrenewal as a result of their involvement.

We reject any kind of retribution against anyone who engage in authorized, nonviolent labor activities and wish that our coworkers would not have to worry for their employment. The employment instability of term-appointed academics, as well as our part-time faculty colleagues, is ultimately detrimental to the institution as well as to these people.

What is Work to Rule?

For those of us with tenure, it is of the utmost importance that we band together to defend our pre-tenure and term-appointed colleagues. If we are forced to participate in a work-to-rule activity, we will need to ensure that these coworkers do not receive unjustified or noncontractual workload increases. Participants in the lawsuit will also need protection against reprisal.

Please also bring to their notice the necessity of avoiding assigning additional work to non-tenured colleagues, staff, or adjunct professors in an effort to compensate for our strike. Please highlight to them the necessity of avoiding the appearance of retribution (or real retaliation) against untenured colleagues or other faculty members who engage in this or other authorized labor activities. There is of course no need to be combative in these interactions. Our goal is only to educate and inform.


Work-to-rule is a workplace action in which workers perform no more than the minimum needed by their contract and strictly obey all safety or other standards, which may result in a drop in production since employees are no longer working during breaks, unpaid overtime, or weekends (checking email, for instance).

This action is seen less disruptive than a strike or lockout, and compliance with the regulations is less likely to result in disciplinary action. Examples include nurses refusing to answer the phone, teachers refusing to work for free at night, on weekends, and during holidays, and police officers refusing to issue fines.

Additional expressions of work-to-rule as industrial action include refusal to work overtime, travel on duty, or sign up for other activities needing employee consent.

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