Four in 10 workers experience workplace harassment, from cyberbullying to sexual discrimination. A whopping 58% of people have experienced gaslighting at work, a form of workplace abuse in which the victim starts to mistrust themselves and their perception of reality.
Workers can usually spot common forms of harassment in the workplace — such as inappropriate remarks or outright discrimination. But gaslighting takes on a more covert form, making it difficult to identify and address.
However, gaslighting can be a major contributor to a bad workplace culture. As a business owner or leader, learning how to identify gaslighting and resolve the issue can help you retain talent and create a healthier environment for everyone.
Table of contents:
- What is gaslighting at work?
- Signs of gaslighting at work
- Gaslighting at work examples
- How to deal with gaslighting at work
What is gaslighting at work?
Gaslighting at work is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser, often in a place of authority, convinces the victim to question their perception of reality. An employee experiencing gaslighting at work may struggle to recognize signs, as gaslighters use sneaky, sometimes charming tactics.
As an example, a manager forgets to assign a task to an employee, but later denies their mistake and insists the employee missed the assignment. The abuser might play dumb and pretend they did nothing wrong, which makes the employee doubt themselves.
The term “gaslight” comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, where a husband convinces a wife of her descent into insanity to cover up his schemes. Since then, psychologists use the term to identify similar behavior — in and out of the workplace.
Signs of gaslighting at work
Gaslighting signs from bosses
Gaslighting often occurs between a person of power, such as a manager, and their subordinates. A boss can leverage their power to always assert themselves as correct, making it difficult for their employees to challenge them.
Research shows that nearly 30% of bosses act “mildly or highly toxic,” and gaslighting could easily manifest as toxic management.
Behaviors from gaslighting bosses often include:
- Avoiding transparency to throw workers off-guard (e.g., inviting an employee to an event with a specific dress code without disclosing that information)
- Never recording meeting minutes so they can flip-flop later (e.g., changing what they said at meetings to place blame on others when the team fails to meet goals)
- Disregarding policies unless it helps the business (e.g., not following up on an employee complaint that might hurt the company’s reputation)
- Not providing full details (e.g., not disclosing all the information a worker might need to complete a project)
- Frequently changing goal posts or job descriptions without reason (to place blame on employees who “underachieve”)
Gaslighting signs from subordinates
Co-workers might gaslight one another to gain positions of power — such as kicking others down to get ahead.
Gaslighting from subordinates might look like:
- Stealing credit for work (e.g., presenting a co-worker’s idea as their own)
- Causing problems between colleagues (e.g., twisting one co-worker’s words said about another person)
- Intimidating colleagues (e.g., threatening to defame someone’s reputation)
- Creating false stories about co-workers (e.g., false accusations of harassment)
- Destroying a co-worker’s confidence (e.g., questioning their methods or undermining their complaints even when legitimate)
Gaslighting at work examples
Gaslighting at work often occurs in three scenarios:
- Managers gaslighting employees
- Co-workers gaslighting each other
- Group gaslighting (e.g., managers or co-workers ganging up on an employee)
Gaslighting at work by bosses
A gaslighting boss can have sweeping consequences for an employee. It might make them feel unwelcome at a company, making them quit or feel unmotivated in their work.
Consider a boss who favors one worker over another for promotions. So, they offer one an opportunity to work on an important project — but create roadblocks to stymie that employee’s efforts. On the flip side, they offer the other worker one-on-one coaching and set them up for success.
Through gaslighting, the manager indirectly pushes one employee forward while stunting the career growth of the other.
In other cases, a manager may try to humiliate an employee even after meeting performance expectations. Ivana Taylor, publisher of DIYMarketers, found herself at the mercy of a toxic boss at a major company.
"The CEO was clear about the direction and tasks he wanted done. I proceeded to create marketing plans and strategies as requested. Before every meeting, he would tell me what he wanted covered and tracked," recalls Taylor. "I would work 80 hours a week to pull information together, present it to him, have it approved for presentation and then get dressed down, yelled at, and humiliated in the meeting."
Gaslighting at work by subordinates
Even without an inherent power imbalance, gaslighting at work can occur between employees and cause problems.
As an example, a co-worker may try to make a teammate feel inadequate, making remarks like: "I see why you take so long to finish those reports" or "Why don’t you do it like this; it’d be easier?" On the surface, these comments seem helpful. But over time, the victim may start to doubt their abilities, especially if they never receive compliments for their achievements.
Gaslighting can even occur across departments and teams. For example, someone in accounting could tell a worker when they plan to send a payment, then turn around and claim a different date. If not written down, management could struggle to identify who caused the problem.
An employee could also fabricate a story to make someone else look bad. Dr. Steve Mascarin, owner of Taunton Village Dental, recalled a previous job where a colleague would sit behind him, look at his computer, and make comments about his work. He told her he appreciated the feedback, but wanted to do things his way.
"She [then] went and told the boss that I disrespected her, got irate, and called her an ugly name,” says Mascarin. “I was called into the office and questioned. I told my side of the story but my boss couldn’t determine the truth to satisfy them. I began jotting things down about interactions with this co-worker so I had evidence with times and dates the next time this happened. She was put on notice about her behavior and it stopped."
Gaslighting at work by groups of employees
Group gaslighting at work can occur with both management and subordinates. For example, a manager may ask a worker to come to a meeting, then ask why they came when they arrive.
When the employee attempts to explain, another manager chimes in and claims the employee must be mistaken. Or worse, they make the accusation that the employee often messes up instructions.
Consider another hypothetical in which a worker gaslights another colleague by misdirecting them on the details of a project (process, deadline, etc.). When it comes time to turn it in, the employee faces disappointment from management.
If the victim attempts to place blame on the gaslighter, teammates take the gaslighter’s side and redirect blame toward the victim.
Tanya Klien, CEO of Anta Plumbing, had to go all out to prove another co-worker tried gaslighting her. After a project was signed off, someone lost the paperwork proving it. The employee (who lost the paperwork) subsequently insisted it was never signed off.
"They tried hard to convince me I made a mistake. A search was done until the paperwork was found, at my discretion. The situation was resolved when it was found, but no one was disciplined, as most [co-workers] determined it was an honest mistake."
How to deal with gaslighting at work
1. Train leadership and management on abuse
Start with training leadership (and yourself) about different forms of emotional abuse, including gaslighting. Learn to understand the signs of gaslighting and create zero tolerance policies to deter the behavior. And when it does happen, remove the perpetrator from the company immediately.
2. Educate workers about gaslighting
Along with management, workers should learn how to identify and respond to gaslighting at work. Consider asking employees to:
- Document everything, including emails, meeting memos, and conversations
- Ask co-workers if they’re having the same experience
- Talk to human resources and see if their colleague or manager’s behaviors go against company policies
3. Follow up on reports of gaslighting
Management have a responsibility to believe employees when they bring up gaslighting and investigate it. Talk to the alleged gaslighter one-on-one and review the evidence compiled against them. Involve HR and look over exit interviews from the manager’s team to identify any pattern.
Continue to keep a watchful eye on team leaders. When you notice management excluding employees or showing toxic behaviors, intervene immediately.
4. Hire people with culture in mind
To avoid toxic offices, TEDx speaker and workplace expert Bonnie Low-Kramen advises building your company and talent pipeline mindfully. "Hire smart and slow. Surround yourself with people who understand your mission and goals and match your pace and work style. Set clear expectations for your team and be transparent with them about how you operate."
"Tell them how they 'win with you' and how they 'lose with you.' Get to know your people and understand how working for you serves them. Executives need to know this. Doing this before you hire someone builds a path for success," says Low-Kramen.
5. Perform psychological safety check-ins on teams
Only a tiny percentage of workplace misconduct gets reported. Instead of expecting employees to report issues, such as gaslighting, to their managers, ensure teams perform psychological safety check-ins on a regular basis. This could include an anonymous survey. You could ask workers questions such as:
- How comfortable do you feel sharing ideas?
- Do you feel you are able to bring up problems or issues?
- What can we start doing to make the workplace environment more positive?
Is gaslighting illegal at work?
Gaslighting is illegal at work if the victim can prove it falls under harassment or discrimination against a legally protected group of people. No specific law prohibits gaslighting itself, so the conduct must fall under those two categories.
The gaslighter’s conduct falls under discrimination when they target the victim based on their:
- Sexual orientation
If this occurs, employees can file a lawsuit against the employer, though illegal discrimination must also involve some sort of adverse employment action — such as lost wages or medical or therapy costs.
Then, the employee can ask for punitive damages, including emotional distress, pain and suffering, or reputational harm. A victim can also sue their employer for their job back if they lose their position, including back pay and front pay.
While no state or federal laws specifically address workplace bullying, employees can still sue their employer depending on local laws. For example, Tennessee's Healthy Workplace Act prohibits abusive conduct, meaning employees can sue a company that permits an abusive work environment by failing to implement policies.