I know this phrase, but for some reason it is blocked in my mind. What is the term for observing a rule, but doing so in a way that subverts it? I'm almost certain that malicious is one of the words in the phrase, but I’m not positive about that.

As an example, suppose there is a rule that in your workplace, you must put boxes to be mailed out in a certain place. Ralph considers this inconvenient, so he puts his boxes there, but he places them so they are in the way when you walk down that aisle, or in a way that makes the mail people work harder to organize the boxes before mailing them out. Ralph does this as a sort of protest against the rule.

I don't think the phrase is malicious observation, and it’s not passive aggressive, but it’s something that means that. Help, this is worse than hearing a particular song in my head for hours!

  • Sabotage is the first term that comes to my mind, but that's of course too general.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 28, 2012 at 13:22
  • 1
    In Spanish, Ralph might be a mosca muerta (literally "dead fly"). Aug 28, 2012 at 13:26
  • 7
    Swedish and Finnish have the colorful expression to read something like the Devil reads the Bible.
    – Henrik N
    Aug 28, 2012 at 15:14
  • 1
    'passive-aggressive' is related.
    – Mitch
    Aug 28, 2012 at 15:16
  • Related: gaming refers to exploiting rules subversively for personal gain.
    – Jon Purdy
    Aug 28, 2012 at 18:04

14 Answers 14


There exists a term malicious obedience or malicious compliance, and I'm guessing that you're thinking of one of those; but most users of that term (in either variant) use it somewhat differently from what you describe. This page, for example, is typical: it says that malicious obedience is "when people set their boss up to fail by doing exactly as he or she says even though they know in their hearts that their actions are incorrect or not optimal." So in your case, that would be if Ralph follows the rule because he knows that it's a bad one that hurts the company.

  • 2
    I have also heard this called "Malicious Compliance". Aug 28, 2012 at 16:13
  • @SeanMcMillan: Thanks. Judging from Google results, that seems to be about equally common, or maybe even more common. I'll update my answer.
    – ruakh
    Aug 28, 2012 at 16:54
  • I was thinking "Malicious Compliance" as well, but "Malicious Obedience" works too. I have not heard these terms, but have described them before. I'm glad we came up with something.
    – TecBrat
    Aug 28, 2012 at 16:59
  • The link from MIT is dead.
    – voices
    Dec 6, 2016 at 21:44

This could also be referred to as obeying the 'letter of the law':

letter of the law: When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law.


"Work to rule" is the traditional union phrase for an "unofficial" slowdown.

EDIT: ruakh's answer is clearly more responsive to OP's question than mine; but I leave mine in place because "malicious compliance" represents an employer's characterization of the same behaviour. It would be up to an arbitrator (in the first instance) to determine which term (if either) applies in a particular case.

  • 2
    Doesn't a work to rule usually include a refusal to work overtime, and similar restrictions? Not quite the same as what is asked. Aug 28, 2012 at 14:09
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    @TimLymington The question is "What is the term for observing a rule, but doing so in a way that subverts it?" "Work to rule" is exactly that: obstructionism which can be accomplished by strict adherence to the CBA. If the CBA allows an employee to decline overtime and all the employees do decline overtime, that's 'work to rule'. And if company rules incorporated by reference in the CBA call for boxes to be placed in location A, and employees follow the rule strictly and place the boxes in location A without regard to convenience or efficiency, that's 'work to rule', too. Aug 28, 2012 at 14:28
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    This is also known as the "Italian strike", which basically means you follow all the rules, including the ones that are so impractical that they impede everyday work from getting done; most companies are full of official rules done for safety reasons or other formal process reasons that pragmatic employees strategically ignore. Maliciously complying is essentially the same thing
    – JasonTrue
    Aug 28, 2012 at 17:38
  • One of my college profs worked for British Rail way back when. He said in some labor dispute the union decided to exercise "to rule". They found some ancient rule saying that every train must have six buckets of sand on board for use in fighting fires. So they refused to let a train leave the station until the sand was on board. Of course modern train stations don't keep supplies of sand, so someone had to go out and get some. When they finally got it, at the next station, they of course had to check the sand again. Etc.
    – Jay
    Aug 28, 2012 at 21:10

I have heard this called a white mutiny, but nobody seems to be able to trace the origin back past Heinlein's Number of the Beast.

  • 4
    I've read about white mutiny, which reminded me of the Italian expression "sciopero bianco" (literally "white strike"), a kind of action which workers implement when they go by the book and literally follow every single rule in their job. It is frequently associated with airport workers and lots of people have missed their flights because of that. Then I also found reference to "Italian strike" which sounds similar in its outcome. I suppose we are notorious for strikes...
    – Paola
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:06
  • 1
    @Paola: Yep, Italian Strike is called White Strike in Italy. Ages old question, how do they call French Fries in France?
    – SF.
    Aug 29, 2012 at 8:53
  • @SF - The term, from my high school French, is simply frites (lit. "fritter", com. "fries"). I don't know if this is the historic term or if it was introduced with the spread of American fast food to Europe.
    – KeithS
    Mar 8, 2013 at 20:12
  • @KeithS: Frites is, in origin, just the feminine plural of frit ("fried"), past participle of frire ("to fry"). In reference to French fries, it's short for pommes de terre frites ("fried potatoes"). (And I believe that "French fries", for that matter, was originally short for "French fried potatoes".)
    – ruakh
    Jul 22, 2015 at 20:55

One of names I met for this in IT is "Demonology" - an approach where you consciously fulfill a faulty order to the letter, causing intentional damage by having the result product backfire as mis-engineered. The name comes from the tales where a wizard summoning a demon would have to be extremely precise in stating their wish, or the demon would use any ambiguities to bring harm to the wizard.


From the Wikipedia article for Letter vs Spirit of the law:

Gaming the system, also called "rules lawyering", is the following of the letter (sometimes referred to as RaW or Rules as Written)—over, or contrary to—the spirit (sometimes referred to as RaI or Rules as Intended) of the law. It is used negatively to describe the act of manipulating the rules to achieve a personal advantage. It may also mean acting in an antisocial, irritating manner while technically staying within the bounds of the rules.

The connotation of "gaming the system" is a little more about getting ahead by toeing (more like bending) the line to others' disadvantage, especially by finding an advantageous loophole or interpretation of the rules, but as the quote says, a "rules lawyer" can do so for the sole purpose of annoying others.

  • Can you link the source?
    – voices
    Dec 6, 2016 at 21:42

I would use the phrase "hostile compliance."

  • That's a good one...
    – KeithS
    Oct 23, 2012 at 14:49

Maybe passive resistance? It is not that passive in your example, but it's definitely a related concept.


Jobsworth - A jobsworth is someone who uses their job to be deliberately uncooperative and unhelpful.


What about scrupulously subversive?

American Heritage defines scrupulous as

conscientious and exact; painstaking

Cambridge Dictionary of American English defines subversive as

tending to weaken or destroy an established political system, organization, or authority


The phrase that springs to mind is "dumb insolence". It's not an exact fit for what you describe but it comes close in some respects. I suspect that in the strict sense of military discipline, this is generally "refusing to answer an officer's questions", but in a broader sense it might also cover other examples of not quite overstepping any specific regulation, depending on how well you conceal your smirk.


counterproductive work behavior (I find this one to best suit the example given by OP) definition:

is employee behavior that goes against the goals of an organization. These behaviors can be intentional or unintentional and result from a wide range of underlying causes and motivations. It has been proposed that a person-by-environment interaction can be utilized to explain a variety of counterproductive behaviors.

workplace bullying definition (snippet):

tendency of individuals or groups to use persistent aggressive or unreasonable behavior against a co-worker or subordinate. Workplace bullying can include such tactics as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. This type of aggression is particularly difficult because, unlike the typical forms of school bullying, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society. Bullying in the workplace is in the majority of cases reported as having been perpetrated by management and takes a wide variety of forms

workplace incivility definition (snippet):

low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target. ... Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others

I was going to suggest 'hostile workplace environment' but all the definitions seemed to only lead one to believe it was meant for heinous acts, nothing like the child's play mentioned in OP's question.


Malicious cooperation.

"They're practicing malicious cooperation -- doing exactly what he tells them to and only what he tells them to, knowing it won't work."

  • OP is looking for a well known phrase. Some cursory searches do not turn your answer up anywhere. This answer can be improved by adding research results which show it to be a well known phrase.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 13, 2012 at 5:53

This is similar to the military slang term chickenshit, which is slavish obedience by a leader to the letter of regulations as opposed to their spirit, often in manner detrimental to the smooth functioning of a unit. The implication is that the officer was is imposing all the chickenshit is doing it merely to demonstrate that they have the power rather than for valid military reasons.

  • "Chickenshit" is a more general term for someone who avoids direct conflict or hides behind something more powerful than themselves when engaging someone else (such as their rank or badge). It may have become more specialized in military usage but it's everywhere in the vernacular and didn't originate there.
    – KeithS
    Aug 28, 2012 at 21:14
  • I think it originated in the American military in WWII not elsewhere. Aug 29, 2012 at 1:44

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