At a Glance

To avoid issues with malicious compliance, fleet managers should:

  • Ensure policy and communication is clear and to the point.
  • Keep exceptions to a minimum.
  • Develop a good relationship with drivers and key stakeholders.
  • Don’t over-manage.
  • If malicious compliance occurs, find out directly from the driver what the problem is.
  • Manage change properly.


There’s an old story of an Air Force officer looking to create work for some of his enlisted men. Calling them into a large, empty room, he tells them, “Men, I want you to paint this entire room white.” Disgruntled and annoyed, the enlisted men proceed to follow their officer’s orders to the utmost: the walls, floor, ceiling, doors, and even the windows were bright, shiny white when the officer returned, to the quiet snickering of his charges.

This is an example of malicious compliance, where subordinates who are unhappy with some order, instruction, policy, or other organizational fiat take their revenge by doing what those Air Force enlisted men did: following vague orders literally or in such detail as to create problems, slow down work, or just to communicate their unhappiness. Believe it or not, fleet managers can be victims of malicious compliance from drivers, their supervisors, and even senior managers. There are ways to avoid it, as well as deal with it when it happens.

Clarify Policy

Among the most common “problem driver” characteristics is lack of compliance or violation of policy. Drivers who don’t have regular preventive maintenance performed, drivers who don’t report physical damage, and drivers prone to traffic violations, or who abuse personal use privileges. The mirror opposite is the driver who exacts some petty revenge against policy or instructions to which he or she objects to by complying ad absurdum to a ridiculous extent, to create difficulty for those tasked with enforcing them.

Malicious compliance most often begins with fleet policy. Drivers, or others bound by the policy, dislike one item or another, and seek to express that dislike by over-complying or complying in such a manner as to make the fleet manager’s job more difficult.

For example, a fleet policy requires drivers to complete a condition report on a quarterly basis or when the vehicle has been damaged.

It’s a very common and relatively painless process. However, perhaps a certain driver feels this is an undue imposition on his time. Perhaps he convinces his supervisor, who has to review and sign off on the report, that it is an undue imposition on his time as well, and that he’s too busy doing his job to be bothered. After all, he keeps the vehicle in top condition, why does he need to report this over and over each year?

The driver’s solution? He makes certain to fill out and forward a condition report for everything that could possibly be defined as “damage” — a coffee stain on the carpet, a small chip on the edge of a door, a little scratch on the rear bumper. He sends reports in every week, sometimes more, and follows up with phone calls or e-mails requesting instructions on where and when he should bring the vehicle in for repairs.

As with most malicious compliance schemes, it is done with an “I’ll show them!” attitude.

Eventually, the fleet manager will be flooded with condition reports and authorization requests for repair work, and will have to spend time dealing with it.

Other common fleet policies can be subject to this sort of malicious compliance: personal use, accident reporting/review, even the employee purchase policy. The psychology of malicious compliance is fairly straightforward. Drivers or others disagree with what they perceive is unfair, intrusive, etc., and retaliate in the form of complying in such a manner as to “get even.”

Determine Causes

The single greatest cause of malicious compliance is vague and non-specific policies and procedures. The previously mentioned policy on condition reports is a good example. If drivers are required to fill out quarterly reports (and supervisors are required to endorse them), and also send in reports when damage occurs, unless the damage is specifically defined drivers have the ability to retaliate maliciously.

Don’t just tell someone to paint the room; tell them to only paint the walls in the room, and nothing else. And specify the color, too.

Sometimes, vagueness can be difficult to avoid, especially when trying to keep the policy short, clear, and to the point while at the same time ensuring drivers know what is expected of them. Walking that fine line can help keep those childish enough to comply maliciously at bay.

Obviously, be as specific in policy (and any other communications with drivers or other stakeholders) as possible. Although the purpose of such compliance may seem only to inflict harm or create problems, there may well be an underlying benefit: It may also help point out flaws in the policy. In the condition report example, the fleet manager would be smart to review the condition report policy, and once done would see one of two flaws:

  • Requiring a report when damage occurs, without having specified what damage would be necessary to trigger the report.
  • Requiring or allowing reports outside of the standard schedule, without confirming if that schedule is even sufficient.

The former would be difficult to remedy, in that it would necessitate detail (scratches greater than “X” inches long) that would then create yet more work for the driver (noticing a scratch, having to measure it, etc.) and unnecessarily complicate the policy document.

The latter makes more sense. Asking for a condition report quarterly or even bi-monthly is not an outrageous requirement. Doing so eliminates the need for drivers to complete non-scheduled reports, and will be sufficient to help fleet managers see damage and manage repairs.

Specify Communications

Policy is not always the target for malicious compliance; sometimes, a request or other communication to the field (or individual driver) can trigger annoyance as well.

For instance, the driver had problems with a vehicle serious enough to require major repairs. The fleet manager now wishes to submit these repairs to the manufacturer for extended warranty consideration. An e-mail is sent requesting all preventive maintenance and other repair activity original receipts from the driver.

The driver, annoyed, decides to send in every scrap of paper he or she can find related to vehicle expense: fuel receipts, repair and maintenance receipts, toll receipts, etc. An envelope arrives in intercompany mail stuffed with paper, in no particular order, and the fleet manager is left to sort it all out. There is not a lot that can be done in this case, other than to be certain that the original communication is very specific about what is needed.

Rather than asking for “maintenance receipts,” ask for receipts directly related to the issue at hand. If it is an engine problem, ask for just the oil changes, for example. More may well be sent, but at least the specificity of the original e-mail will provide the fleet manager grounds to reprimand the driver, and/or note the event to a supervisor.


Just the Bare Minimum?

Malicious compliance can also be seen when drivers do exactly what a policy or communication (that they don’t like, or don’t agree is necessary) tells them to do, and no more. This is a tactic sometimes used by unions; the “work to rule” tactic.

Vehicle policy, for example, requires drivers check tire pressure every morning before going out to work. A driver, for whatever reason, is annoyed by this requirement. He checks the pressure, but doesn’t do anything about it when he finds a tire is low. The tire wears out prematurely, and additional expense is incurred.

Yes, the driver checked the tire pressure, but uses the (somewhat ridiculous) excuse that the policy doesn’t say to keep the pressure at the proper level; it only says to check it. Rather than over-complying, the driver is “working to rule,” and it costs the company time and money.

Once again, a bit more specificity in the policy — check your tire pressure daily, and maintain the proper pressure as indicated in the vehicle’s owner’s manual — would eliminate the excuse.

Relationships & Rebels

Going through company policy carefully and eliminating any vagueness is a first step in reducing the opportunities for malicious compliance by drivers. But, on a more strategic level, developing a good working relationship with drivers and all other fleet stakeholders will help head it off as well. Some tactics include:

  • Involving drivers, supervisors, and anyone who is a stakeholder in the fleet program in the establishment of policy, especially changes.
  • Don’t over manage; quarterly condition reports are fine. Keep exceptions and special requests to a minimum whenever possible.
  • Avoiding vagueness in policy and communication. Drivers will appreciate knowing exactly what is expected of them, rather than having to figure things out for themselves.
  • Keeping an “open door.” Encourage drivers to communicate their questions and concerns. Post fleet policies online, and include an FAQ feature.

When drivers feel they are left out of the process, they’ll rebel when something doesn’t go their way. Fleet drivers spend hundreds of hours each month in their vehicles, and deserve some level of consideration for their needs and concerns, both directly and via their management representatives.

Manage Change

Change is fertile ground for malicious compliance. Drivers have enough to do, and they prefer to be comfortable in a routine in matters not directly related to the job at hand. Never forget the vehicle is merely a tool, one which helps driver better sell company products and services, deliver them to the customer, and provide service.

Know also that malicious compliance doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in a manner directly related to a driver’s discontent. For example, drivers in general aren’t enamored with downsizing. They generally prefer a mid-sized sedan to a compact, and discontent with radical changes could well bubble up in some other area of policy. Include drivers (or their representatives) when the downsizing decision is made. Make the case well enough, and the chance of discontent serious enough to trigger retaliation is reduced.

All in all, though malicious compliance isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a widespread, serious problem in a fleet operation, rare instances can create problems that a fleet manager doesn’t need. Keep the do’s and don’ts of avoiding this kind of behavior close at hand.

Fleet managers generally find that instances of malicious compliance aren’t all that common; but, when faced with a torrent of unneeded condition reports or a driver who wears out a tire prematurely because he wasn’t told what to do after checking tire pressure, it can eat up precious time and resources.

Dealing with drivers, their supervisors, and all others with a stake in the game, as peers and partners, can go a long way toward avoiding malicious compliance.