The sociopathic employee handbook


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.

4 responses

  1. This is validating, as I just left a toxic job. I was surprised by a receiving a paycheck half what I expected, only to be told they had decided not to give me PTO or paid holidays anymore. In the handbook, it indeed said that benefits can change at any time!

  2. In California we have one of those laws that requires training about workplace bullying which is supposed to suffice as a substitute for the HWB. It was tagged onto the law regarding sexual harassment training…both are only for supervisors! However, sexual harassment is against the law and workplace bullying is not. Ergo, this lends itself to teaching what cannot happen in the workplace versus what can happen. Rank and file is not privileged to this training. Might, for instance, a manager take away from this training knowledge of how he should appear to be an equal opportunity bully if he plans to target the prettiest woman in his department? Bully several people and she will have no cause to claim that he singles her out for abuse, though the abuse heaped on her is of a slightly sexual nature. Yes, those employee handbooks state what can and cannot be done in this “fire at will” nation.

  3. I worked in a disability services non-profit for 10 years. After about 8 years a new Program Manager was hired who was decidedly a bit more authoritarian and sociopathic than had previously been the case. When I wanted our bullying policy, which was inspired by me in 2006, included and highlighted in our Employee Handbook, the new manager stated that the Title 7 language in the Handbook regarding discrimination, harassment and “protected” classes was all that was needed. The previous management, in conjunction with our attorneys, had in fact written the bullying policy based on literature I gave them that I received at an anti-bullying conference at Laney College in Oakland featuring Dr. Gary Namie.

    Preparing to lobby for the inclusion of our bullying policy in the Employee Handbook, I did a close reading of the Handbook. It, of course, mentioned that employees were “at will employees”, and then it mentioned it again, and further on yet again! After 3 times, we get it! And this is in a context where 50% of employees were people with disabilities. I suggested that with such an emphasis on “at will” there should at least be included in the Handbook an explanation of California’s legal Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing just to kind of balance things out and suggest that employees might just be protected from extremist management sociopaths. I didn’t use terms like “extremist” and “sociopathic” in my lobbying efforts, yet our new manager wasn’t thrilled at my suggestion. He also wasn’t thrilled that I suggested our sequestration cutbacks be equally dispersed to all employees rather than have the new manager’s favorites escape any hours or days cutbacks. Our biggest funder, the California State Department of Rehabilitation, handled their cutbacks by having everyone take a furlough day a month. When I offered these suggestions to management and staff, I was fired the next day, with the new manager breaking 2 of my own computers in the process.

    I searched EEOC and could not find any way that I, not being of any protected class, could have a legal cause of action. I am now facing homelessness.

  4. My ex-employer has a “respectful workplace” policy that includes this disclaimer-

    “Disrespectful behaviour does not include: consensual banter or consensual romantic relationships; performance reviews, performance management, managerial functions or activities, counseling, and/or discipline imposed by the employer.”

    So it’s pretty clear where a manager can concentrate bullying activities without running afoul of the policy. Notice that there’s nothing requiring that managerial excursions into those areas be reasonable.

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