Shedding Light on Gaslighting: An Underreported Workplace Harassment

man frustrated

If you’ve ever felt like you were blamed for something you didn’t do or manipulated by misdirection, odds are good that you’ve been a victim of gaslighting.

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is psychological manipulation which sows seeds of discontent and doubt. The term comes from a 1938 mystery thriller called Gas Light where a diabolical husband drives his wife slowly mad by making up false memories and denying facts.

In the workplace, gaslighting is a form of harassment that often goes underreported because it is difficult to prove. Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free explains: “Gaslighting is underreported in the workplace, because gaslighters who are particularly adept at manipulation may make the victim feel as if it was all his or her fault…(Gaslighters) might change due dates and deadlines in the middle of a project, leaving a victim pulling all-nighters to get it done.”  Because of this manipulation, the victim becomes confused.

Gaslighters cause others to question their own version of events. Rachel Bowie of MSN gives this example: “A boss lays out expectations on a project, but when you meet them, tells you the standards she measures work against have changed. It’s a power play,” Bowie explains.

Another example of gaslighting is a boss “forgetting” a crucial conversation which leaves an employee wondering if the conversation even happened. Or a gaslighter blaming someone for being “too emotional” in a situation which trivializes feelings.

Who Are Gaslighters?

A gaslighter is often someone in a position of power and can range from a boss to a coworker to even a client or competitor. Gaslighters are often very intelligent, says Connecticut-based psychotherapist Dori Gatter, PsyD. “Their intellect, combined with their inability to handle negative feedback, means they often assume positions of authority in the workplace. More often than not, they’ll either be an entrepreneur or in some position of power—that’s where they’re much more comfortable,” says Gatter.

How to Detect Gaslighting

Gaslighters try to block other people’s success.  To determine gaslighting, ask yourself these questions (Rachel Bowie, MSN):

  1. Is this person trying to dominate and control situations and conversations?
  2. Is what they’re saying actually not true?
  3. Is the gaslighter breaking societal norms and rules by shaming, humiliating, and essentially bullying you?

You can also look for people who give off a persistent negative narrative or spread negative gossip. Other signs are negative humor and sarcasm and professional exclusion, bullying and inequitable treatment, according to Preston Ni, Psychology Today.

How to Dim the Light on Gaslighting in the Office

Vicki Salemi, career expert and coach for gives some ideas for stopping gaslighting in the office:

  • Document everything (write things down, keep emails, recap conversations).
  • Talk to a colleague you can trust. If it feels safe, bring up what has been happening and ask if they’ve been harassed in this way as well. That way, when you approach HR, you can potentially enlist the group to be a united front.
  • Bring documentation to any meeting with your boss or HR.Keep your documentation on hand, whether your meeting is with colleagues or on your own. If you talk about the toxic gaslight behavior, support with documented examples.

If your own mental health or the health of your company is at risk due to gaslighting, you may need to act.  Sometimes just being able to recognize this behavior by name is a good place start.

It is good for companies to be mindful and acknowledge the many issues that polarize team members.  Leaders should think beyond physical diversity and consider how diversity of thought/ political opinion factors into the workplace.  Create a culture of respectful communication.

Artemis Consultants knows that company culture (and employee mental health) can be just as important as other factors in job satisfaction.  If you are in an unhealthy situation and need to make a job change, consider Artemis for your recruiting needs.

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