What does the idiom "work to rule" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase work to rule, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression work to rule used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "work to rule"


The phrase “work to rule” refers to a type of protest by workers in which they deliberately follow all the rules and regulations of their job, to the letter, in order to cause their employer economic and reputational damage. The idea behind the protest is to impact the employer’s bottom line by slowing down production, thereby making it more difficult and more expensive to maintain the same production level.


The phrase “work to rule” first appeared in print in the early 1970s, and its origin is unknown. The phrase has been used in several different contexts, but in the labor context it is often used to describe a particular form of protest by workers. The idea of working to the rules to cause disruption likely originated in the early 20th century labor movement, when striking was often prohibited or impractical.


Work to rule protests have been used by workers in a variety of settings, from offices and universities, to factories and hospitals. It is most often used when workers feel that their employer is not respecting their rights or treating them fairly. It is also used when other forms of protest may be difficult or even illegal, such as strikes. In this case, workers will take the protest to the employer in the form of slowing production or disrupting normal operations by adhering strictly to the rules of their job.

Example Sentences

  • The factory workers are working to rule in order to protest the company's decision to reduce their benefits.
  • The teachers decided to take a work to rule approach in order to demand higher pay.
  • The hospital staff is using a work to rule strategy to highlight the dangerous working conditions they are facing.

The meanings of the words in the "work to rule" idiom

Idioms with similar meanings in different languages

"Barking up the wrong tree" is an English idiom that means to pursue a mistaken or misguided course of action. In German, the similar idiom is "Auf dem Holzweg sein," which translates to "To be on the wrong track." This idiom emphasizes the idea that when you are pursuing the wrong course of action, you are not going to achieve your desired outcome.


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