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Work-to-rule (also known as an Italian strike, in Italian: Sciopero bianco, or slowdown in US usage) is a job action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of their contract or job, and strictly follow time-consuming rules normally not enforced. This may cause a slowdown or decrease in productivity if the employer does not hire enough employees or pay the appropriate salary and consequently does not have the requirements needed to run normally. It is a form of protest against low pay and poor working conditions, and is considered less disruptive than a strike or lockout; obeying the rules is not susceptible to disciplinary action or loss of pay. It can also highlight rules that are technically in place but impractical and thus hamper the organization, if they were to be followed as written.
In practice, there may be ambiguous conditions – for example, a contract that requires working additional hours when necessary, or a requirement to work to operational requirements. In such cases, workers have been recommended to ask for a written direction to carry out the work, which can be used as evidence if necessary.
Work-to-rule may be employed formally or informally by workers and organizers as an alternative to traditional strike action in contexts where strikes are prohibited, either by law or due to lack of workforce union participation or political will. Work-to-rule has been employed in sectors where striking is prohibited, including education, policing, and healthcare, as well as in authoritarian societies such as Russia which prohibit strikes generally. In this respect, work-to-rule tactics can resemble other forms of industrial action such as an overtime ban or blue flu.
Quiet quitting is a specific, often spontaneous or grassroots application of work-to-rule tactics. Despite the name, the philosophy of quiet quitting is not connected to quitting a job outright, but rather, employees avoid going above and beyond at work by doing the bare minimum required and engage in work-related activities solely within defined work hours. Proponents of quiet quitting also refer to it as "acting your wage" or "calibrated contributing," and say that the goal of quiet quitting is not primarily to disrupt the workplace as part of an organized movement, but to avoid occupational burnout and to reassert autonomy and work-life balance on an individual level.
There are no verifiable sources as to who coined the phrase, but it was thought to be inspired by the tang ping ("lying flat") movement that began in April 2021 on Chinese social media and became a buzzword on Sina Weibo. Later that year, Chinese Internet users combined tang ping with involution, a process researched by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his 1963 book, Agricultural Involution. The book gained attention in the late 1980s from social sciences research about China which led to the term "involution" gaining great attention in China. In 2020, "involution" became one of the most commonly used words on Chinese-language media, where it is used to describe the feeling of exhaustion in an overly competitive society.
After tang ping became a buzzword and inspired numerous Internet memes, business magazine ABC Money claimed it resonated with a growing silent majority of youth disillusioned by the officially endorsed "Chinese Dream" that encourages a life of hard work and sacrifice with no actual life satisfaction to show for it. An editorial published in the journal of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers defined quiet quitting as a rejection of "hustle culture" and the belief that value of work is intrinsically tied to number of hours.
Quiet quitting is a mindset in which employees deliberately limit work activities to their job description, meet yet not exceed the previously established expectations, never volunteer for additional tasks and do all this to merely maintain their current employment status while prioritizing their well-being over organizational goals. Employees quiet quit due to poor extrinsic motivation, burnout and grudges against their managers or organizations. Quiet quitting is a double-edged sword: while it helps workers avoid burnout, engaging in this behavior may jeopardize their professional careers. Though the term is new, the ideas behind quiet quitting are not and go back decades. The phrase, "quiet quitting," became popular during 2022 in the United States, mostly through the social video platform TikTok. In 2022, quiet quitting experienced a surge in popularity in numerous publications following a viral TikTok video which was inspired by a Business Insider article. That same year, Gallup found that roughly half of the U.S. workforce were quiet quitters.
Industry observers argue the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the social movement of quiet quitting, with a resurgence in labor sentiments among Generation Z as a result of the economic fallout. A 2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, later cited by business experts, revealed that forty percent of US workers surveyed intend to change jobs, which the report attributed to lack of compensation for the amount of stress and burnout endured.
In 2023, a trend called quiet cutting was seen where employers would reassign rather than lay off employees, suggesting a possible shift in workplace power.
While individual contributors might think in terms of otherwise "engaged workers setting reasonable boundaries", their employers might see them instead as "slackers who are willfully underperforming". Depending on jurisdiction, work-to-rule may sometimes be considered by employers as malicious compliance, and they may attempt to pursue legal action against workers. While generally not grounds for legal retaliation on an individual basis, employers may attempt to enforce onerous contract terms such as:
They may also take standard forms of action especially where custom terms were not negotiated during the offer:
The employer counterpart of 'quiet quitting' is 'quiet firing', in which an employer deliberately offers only a minimum wage and benefits and denies any advances in the hope that an unwanted employee would quit. The term has also been used to refer to employers reducing the scope of a worker's responsibilities to encourage them to quit voluntarily. "Quiet hiring" is another related term that has been used to describe a strategy by employers to give additional responsibilities and unpaid extra workload to hard-working employees.
In countries or sectors where other forms of striking is regulated or illegal, work-to-rule tactics may be subject to scrutiny or punishment. In the United States, work-to-rule tactics which are coordinated by a labor organization or its agents may be ruled and treated as a strike under the National Labor Relations Act, and may be interpreted as failure to bargain in good faith, a requirement of collective bargaining. In the case of non-union workplaces, employees suspected of work-to-rule tactics, organizing, or quiet quitting, may be fired if their employment is considered at-will, though such termination may still be considered wrongful if there is overt evidence it is done to infringe on workers' protected rights to organize.
Cases of work-to-rule tactics have included:
Although the term quiet quitting was popularised in 2022, aspects of quiet quitting have existed in the workplace and popular culture for much longer. The film Office Space (1999) depicts a character engaging in quiet quitting; in the film, Ron Livingston's character Peter Gibbons abandons the concept of work entirely and does the bare minimum required of him.
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