Last reviewed 19 February 2021
In gaslighting, the bully wears their victim down with regular lies and unkind comments, slowly attacking their self-esteem and self-worth. Be aware, this kind of insidious behaviour in the workplace can destabilise your team.
What is gaslighting at work?
Gaslighting in the workplace is when an employer or employee behaves in a way that aims to distort a co-worker’s view of reality.
The most common indication of gaslighting in the workplace is lying.
According to Psychology Today, a gaslighter will tell blatant lies, so setting a precedent for future behaviour. Once this has happened, the victim is no longer able to tell what is true or not. This can trigger self-doubt.
Other gaslighting signs include denying they said something when they did (or vice versa), using information about a person as ammunition, and criticising their actions, work and words.
Gaslighting is not something that can be done in a day or two — gaslighting behaviour at work happens slowly and over a long period. The perpetrator wears their victim down, slowly draining their self confidence.
When we imagine a bully, we imagine someone who goes around physically harassing people and making their life unbearable. However, gaslighters are more manipulative. Their negative behaviour often projects their own insecurities. They are hard to spot, especially since they can mix in occasional positive reinforcement with the negative to confuse their victim.
The most common symptom is the victim experiencing an increase in self-doubt because gaslighting creates cognitive dissonance ― a gap between what is experienced and what you believe to be true.
Signs of a person who might be a target of emotional gaslighting include:
difficulty in making, or inability to make, decisions
feeling isolated from work colleagues
feeling anxious or as though they can’t do anything right.
Examples of gaslighting
Gaslighters often get away with it precisely because it is so difficult to pinpoint specific gaslighting examples at work. However, some typical behaviours are as follows.
The individual makes a derogatory comment to the victim and then denies they said anything.
An employee tells a colleague the deadline for a project has moved and then, when questioned about it later, insist they never said it.
The individual hides the victim’s belongings or moves their equipment when they’re away from their desk.
The victim gets left out of important email chains “accidentally”.
Gaslighters may also accuse other employees of being “irrational” or “overacting”. Not only does this deflect the gaslighter’s responsibility, it also trivialises the victim’s feelings.
Although individually these examples might not sound like much, that is why they are so successful. When combined over a long period of time this behaviour can have detrimental effects on an employee’s mental wellbeing.
Effects of gaslighting
Instances such as the above lead to self-doubt which can, in turn, lead to depression and anxiety at the thought of coming into work.
As such, the effects of gaslighting can be detrimental to the wellbeing of your staff. This can then lead to negative effects on the business.
As a result of this, employers might see:
an increase in absenteeism
increased anxiety about going to work
decline in performance
inability to accept genuine criticism
All the above creates a culture of discomfort and distrust in an environment that should aim to encourage trust and support.
Managing gaslighting behaviour — employers
Remember you have a duty of care to your staff. Your duty extends to taking reasonable steps to prevent victimisation, harassment and bullying, and gaslighting is a form of bullying. Your organisation should have a policy on bullying and harassment, which reflects its business values and highlight its commitment to promoting positive relationships between co-workers. If not, use our template Bullying and Harassment Policy.
This policy should highlight the complaints process as well as the remedy for resolving it. Your staff should be aware of the organisation’s stance on this behaviour as well as the implications for not adhering to company policy. This includes verbal warnings and other disciplinary measures.
Consider including it in contracts, as part of the onboarding process, on the company intranet and, if possible, around the office.
The organisation may wish to train managers and supervisors to recognise bullying behaviour and support staff. While it can be challenging to manage gaslighting behaviour, with training, they can learn how to deal with it.
Other tips on how to deal with gaslighting abuse include the following.
Training: Managers need to understand gaslighting and its severity. If they don’t know what it is, they won’t be able to identify it. Train them to recognise the signs of gaslighting and its effects on employees. Make sure employees are familiar with the legislation surrounding harassment in the workplace. They should also be aware of your company’s policy on bullying and harassment — as well as the possible repercussions.
Documentation: Ensure employees being gaslighted document all evidence of it.
Schedule one-to-ones: If you’re presented with evidence of gaslighting, schedule a meeting with the accused to raise the issue with them. Rather can confronting them, stay positive and remind them of the benefits of maintaining a positive relationship with their co-workers.
Never ignore it: While it might be difficult to prove, and hence easy to brush off, it is a mistake to ignore the damage that gaslighting can do.
Managing gaslighting behaviour — employees
If you recognise any of the gaslighting behaviour examples listed above and believe you, or a colleague, is being gaslit at work here are some things you can do.
Document it. This psychological behaviour is a form of harassment against which the Equality Act 2010 protects employees. It’s important to document every instance where a staff member feels harassed. If their job requires regular communication with the gaslighter, they should try to limit such communication to written channels. That way, they can present a hard copy of communications if requested by their employer.
Educate yourself. Gaslighters are good at slow, manipulative behaviour, so it’s worth educating yourself and any colleagues you have concerns about on how to identify their tactics.
Avoid direct confrontation. When confronted, gaslighters are likely to respond with personal attacks. Line managers should consider asking the HR department for support from the beginning. They are likely to be in a better position to address the issue and conduct a mediation if required.
If you’re currently dealing with this issue at work and would like immediate support, contact the Health Assured team on 0844 891 0354. Experienced counsellors are on hand to guide you and support your staff.