word fight: malicious compliance, work-to-rule

Sometimes two groups of people disagree so hard about whether a thing is good or not that they can’t even call it by the same name.

For example: There is a thing called “malicious compliance.” Well, that’s what some people call it. Other people call it “work-to-rule.” Even if you don’t know what the thing is, you can already tell who likes it and who doesn’t. But here’s an example:

A restaurant manager tells his employees to stay out of the back office. It doesn’t matter why. Maybe there’s a cash box in there, or maybe he’s afraid they’ll check the browser history on his computer. And let’s say the only set of keys to the basement liquor cabinet are kept in that office.

Now: The manager is not always around. Sometimes the restaurant gets very busy when he’s gone and the bartenders run out of the menu’s most expensive (and popular) wine. If an employee sneaks into the office to get the keys, the restaurant can keep selling the wine by the glass for the rest of the night. Otherwise, employees will have to tell their customers to order something cheaper.

So: The employees follow the rule — they stay out of the office — even though they know it’s bad for business.

Is this “malicious compliance” — a mean-spirited attempt to hurt the restaurant by taking a rule too literally? Or is it “work-to-rule” — an honest employee effort to expose an incompetent manager while ensuring that they can’t be fired for breaking the rules?

Who wants to know? Who’s answering? Which is it?