I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. Like many employee handbooks, there were sections devoted to employee rights, obligations, and performance expectations. On the surface, this handbook seemed to provide a good number of safeguards for workers to prevent unfair treatment and evaluations.
But then I read the document more closely, and a chill ran up my spine.
This handbook was a cleverly, nay, ingeniously worded document that exposed workers to severe remedial measures, substantial discipline, or even termination for relatively minor inadequacies and transgressions. The handbook contained a lot of cool, calm, bureaucratic-sounding language, mixed in with deftly worded provisions that would allow the employer to make mountains of molehills and to quietly knife people in the back — figuratively speaking, of course.
Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer!
The legal significance of employee handbooks
During recent decades, many state supreme courts have ruled that handbook provisions can be contractually binding upon employers and employees alike. At first, these judicial pronouncements were deemed victories for workers, allowing them to claim that assurances in employee handbooks could be relied upon as contractually enforceable agreements.
In some cases, it could mean that employers would be held to handbook language containing, explicitly or implicitly, employment protections or benefit promises. Given that most workers are hired on an at-will basis — meaning they can be terminated for any reason that doesn’t violate existing employment laws — these court rulings offered promise of greater job safeguards.
But since this rash of court rulings (many in the 1970s and 1980s), employers, via their human resources officers and lawyers, have gotten wise about writing employee handbooks. You see, unlike union collective bargaining agreements that are actually negotiated, the content of employee handbooks for workers who don’t have union bargaining rights is determined solely by management. For better or worse, employee handbooks heavily weighted toward management prerogative are pretty much the norm these days. Typically, new hires get the end product of that internal process when the human resources office introduces them to the handbook during orientation.
So back to the sociopathic employee handbook.
It’s one thing to have an employee handbook that sets out, in stark terms, an autocratic, punitive work environment. However, even worse are those handbooks that have a distant appearance of fairness, while actually being loaded with details that can be used to roughhouse rank-and-file employees in twisted, gaslighting-type ways. The handbook that inspired this post falls in this latter category.
For what it’s worth, I think there is a special place in a certain hot spot for those who write and impose such documents on workers. It is, to be sure, a twisted abuse of power.
This post was revised in July 2019.