Gaslighting at work: a manager’s guide
While the concept of ‘gaslighting at work’ is relatively modern in HR terminology, power struggles in the workplace are by no means new.
For managers, the challenge is identifying gaslighting and taking appropriate steps to deal with unwanted and toxic behaviours.
What is gaslighting at work?
Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘gaslighting’ doesn’t derive from clinical literature within a psychological context, but rather comes from popular culture, originating from the 1944 movie adaptation ‘Gaslight’ starring Ingrid Bergman, based on a play of the same name. In the story, a husband attempts to drive his wife insane so that he can take control of her wealth by, amongst other things, dimming the gas lights in their house and blaming it on her imagination.
The ‘gaslighting’ phrase is basically a colloquialism that has slowly crept into English vocabulary — more so in recent years, despite being coined several decades ago — and is now commonly used to describe the behaviour by one person intended to make another person doubt their own perceptions, diminish their sense of security and question their view of reality. It therefore typically involves two parties: the ‘gaslighter’, who persistently presents a false narrative, and the ‘gaslighted’, who struggles to preserve their individual autonomy.
Generally, gaslighting is effective only when there’s an unequal power dynamic between those involved, where this can take place in both personal and professional relationships. At work, gaslighting often occurs between a senior and more junior member of staff, although it can also occur between co-workers of the same seniority.
In all cases, however, the victim is either vulnerable in some way or fearful of the losses associated with challenging the gaslighter’s false narrative, such as rocking the boat or losing credibility at work. Gaslighting at work is therefore the psychological manipulation, within a workplace context, designed to make an employee or co-worker believe that their thoughts, perceptions or beliefs are mistaken.
Gaslighting at work differs from genuine workplace disagreements, in that one party is manipulating the perceptions of the other, often for their own gain, although this type of behaviour is not always intentional or malicious, and may be acted out at a subconscious level. There are several reasons as to why a gaslighter may display this type of behaviour, either consciously or subconsciously, for example, they may feel as if their target is a threat to their role or reputation, they may have a particular prejudice towards the target, or they may be incompetent at their role or lack confidence themselves so use gaslighting to feel in control.
Examples of gaslighting at work
Examples of gaslighting at work could be anything from an employee telling a colleague that the deadline for a project was moved but, when questioned about it later, insisting that they never said it, to hiding someone’s belongings when they’re away from their desk. It’s basically any type of behaviour that serves to undermine, demean or mislead the person being gaslit, although there are a wide range of behaviours that could amount to gaslighting at work.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint specific examples of gaslighting at work, there are several behavioural characteristics that make it much easier to illustrate, including:
- Denial: where the gaslighter makes a derogatory comment or behaves in a derogatory way then denies to the target having made that statement or acted in that manner, for example, by saying “That’s not what happened, I’ve never done that!”
- Diverting: where the gaslighter diverts the target’s attention away from reality, by making statements like “You’re just imagining things, I’ve no idea what’s going on inside your head!”
- Trivialising: where the gaslighter accuses the target of being irrational or overacting so as to dismiss their emotions and trivialise their feelings, saying things like “Why are you blowing this out of proportion?” or “You’re getting angry for absolutely no reason”.
- Countering: where the gaslighter responds to a perfectly rational comment made by the target with a comeback that makes that individual question their own recollection, for example, by making statements like “You told me X, you never remember anything you say!”
- Stereotyping: where the gaslighter uses stereotypes to undermine the target’s opinions, by saying things like “I hope you’re not going to tell me X? That’s just what a man would say!”
- Withholding: where the gaslighter refuses to listen to what the target has to say, by making statements like “I’m not going to sit here and listen to this again” or “I don’t understand what you’re getting at, so it’s pointless continuing this conversation!”.
Although these examples might not sound like much in isolation, taken together over time, their cumulative effect can have a highly detrimental impact on the mental wellbeing of the person being gaslit. In fact, gaslighting usually occurs over prolonged periods of time, rather than on a one-off basis, where even the most robust recipient of this pattern of behaviour may eventually start to lack confidence and experience feelings of self-doubt.
How can gaslighting at work be managed?
Fostering a positive and productive working environment, free from gaslighting and any other unhealthy workplace practices, isn’t necessarily straightforward. It encompasses a broad range of behaviours in a number of different contexts. Still, understanding how to effectively manage gaslighting at work is important, as the consequences of this type of behaviour can have a significant impact on employee engagement and performance. In serious cases, it can even lead to loss of valuable members of staff and tribunal claims for constructive dismissal.
Fortunately, there are several measures that can be implemented to help manage gaslighting at work. These can either be tried individually or used collectively, including:
Adding gaslighting to a suitable workplace policy
Having a workplace policy that deals with either harassment or dignity at work, one that covers all kinds of unwanted conduct that an employer is looking to eradicate, can often be a good starting point when it comes to addressing gaslighting. By setting out in writing a clear definition of what gaslighting at work means, with examples of the types of behaviour that could constitute gaslighting, this can help to educate the workforce. Equally, by warning staff of the possible repercussions of using gaslighting tactics at work for their own gain, such as disciplinary action or even dismissal, this can help to create a zero tolerance culture when it comes to manipulative or controlling behaviours within the workplace.
Putting in place appropriate gaslighting grievance procedures
Most businesses will already have some form of grievance procedure in place although, given the often subtle and not always deliberate nature of gaslighting, some employers may want to create a tailored procedure to deal specifically with these types of complaints. Either way, there needs to be a clear written process for victims of gaslighting to follow. This could be set out in full under any gaslighting section as part of a broader workplace policy, or employees could instead be signposted to the company’s general grievance procedure.
Addressing any gaslighting grievance sensitively
In cases where an employee has felt courageous enough to report incidents of gaslighting at work, it’s important not to undermine what they’re saying, so as not to further demean their thoughts, perceptions or beliefs. Where a complaint is not dealt with sensitively or taken seriously this, of itself, may amount to breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence, such that the complainant feels forced to resign and claim constructive dismissal. If the gaslighting is unintentional, an informal chat with the accused may quickly resolve the matter, although formal disciplinary action may be needed if the matter is deliberate, longstanding or ongoing.
Providing training for management on gaslighting at work
In many cases, those guilty of gaslighting will be senior members of staff or otherwise in positions of authority. It’s therefore important to provide suitable training to line managers and team leaders on how to avoid gaslighting behaviours and the impact that this can have on those being gaslit. Equally, these people will also be directly responsible for dealing with any complaints of gaslighting at work as between co-workers, or be in a position to spot the signs and take steps to prevent this behaviour from recurring. This means that they will need to be trained on what to look out for and how to handle these matters effectively.
What are the signs and symptoms of gaslighting at work?
By its’ very nature, gaslighting at work can be difficult to detect. This is because it’s typically a very subtle form of manipulation that takes place over time, where often the person being gaslit is not even aware that they’re being manipulated, and the gaslighter isn’t always acting with malicious intent. It’s also not uncommon for employees to feel fearful of reprisals or be worried about revealing any weakness, especially within a competitive working environment. This means that line managers and team leaders should never solely rely on their employees to let them know if they’re experiencing a difficult power struggle. Proactive steps must be taken to check on the wellbeing of staff and to spot the signs of gaslighting at work.
There are, however, several indications of someone being subjected to gaslighting behaviours, very often similar to the common signs associated with bullying, where an employee begins to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression or low self-esteem and self-worth, including:
- low levels of employee engagement
- reduced performance and productivity
- increased absenteeism, for example, with work-related stress
- a noticeable lack of confidence or difficulty making decisions
- constantly apologising or, conversely, an inability to accept genuine criticism
- self-isolation or social withdrawal from colleagues
- physical signs of stress or tiredness.
Is gaslighting at work harassment?
Gaslighting at work is a psychological behaviour that, in some cases, may constitute harassment under the Equality Act 2010. The 2010 Act affords employees protection against any unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, where that conduct has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or, alternatively, creating either an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
The relevant protected characteristics under the Act for the purposes of harassment include age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. This means that if an individual is subjected to manipulative or controlling behaviour that serves to violate their dignity or creating a negative working environment for them because they possess any one of these characteristics, this will amount to unlawful discriminatory conduct.
In theory, therefore, gaslighting at work could potentially lead to a claim for unlawful discrimination, although it may be difficult for the victim to prove a prolonged course of unwanted conduct linked to a protected characteristic. That said, gaslighting at work is still a form of bullying or emotional abuse that can have serious consequences, both for the victim and the business as a whole, especially if this results in the loss of valuable employees.
To ensure the health and wellbeing of the workforce, gaslighting at work should be treated in the same way as any other type of bullying or harassment, regardless of the subtleties involved — in this way, creating a positive working environment for everyone to thrive in.
Gaslighting at work FAQs
How do you tell if a coworker is gaslighting you?
It’s not always easy to tell if a coworker is gaslighting you as this type of manipulative behaviour can be very subtle and therefore difficult to detect, but often it’s where you find yourself apologising and on the back foot.
What is an example of gaslighting in the workplace?
A common example of gaslighting at work is an employee telling a colleague that the deadline for a project was moved but, when questioned about it later, insisting that they never said this.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.