Malicious Compliance – What Is It?

Nancy B. Alston

Malicious compliance is a term often used in business and management settings to describe a person who has an odd way of inflicting harm of the company. When most people think of a trouble making employee, they think of one that causes a ruckus and doesn’t follow orders. Malicious compliance, however, features a person who exhibits passive aggressive behavior in following the exact guidelines of management. They do this because they know that following such rigid guidelines will, in some cases, inflict harm on the company either in a financial or ethical sense.

A simple way to think about malicious compliance is that it is a very demented form of sabotage used by people who don’t like their managers. Workers feel the need to somehow inflict harm on a manager’s reputation, so they make it a point to do things that will cause that damage. As where normal sabotage would involve doing something out of line to hurt the company, this is a round about way of staying within the rules while knowingly hurting a manager’s ability to perform the job. That is the extremely important thing to remember about this kind of passive aggressive behavior. The intent and will to do damage has to be present, along with a couple of other conditions.

In order for malicious compliance to occur, several other factors have to be present. The manager or superior must give out problematic orders without fully knowing the scope of what those orders might cause. In short, they make a mistake in giving an incorrect order and the worker realizes the mistake. Instead of letting the superior know of the mistake, the worker knowing inflicts malicious compliance on the company. The subordinate must also follow the orders so closely that he or she does not ever deviate from the given orders. This, in a way, keeps the worker within the rigid guidelines of the rules, but businesses don’t take kindly to this kind of behavior.

Though more businesses have put in programs to watch for various types of sabotage, it is still difficult to discern when a person is actually looking to inflict malicious compliance. It is almost impossible to get inside of someone’s head and figure out exactly what they were thinking at the time of fulfilling the orders, so inflicting punishment for this sabotage is all but impossible. The key for businesses is to keep a good working accord so that workers don’t ever think about something like malicious compliance.

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