Gaslighting at Work: Facts vs Fiction
‘I left my last job abruptly, after the way we were treated by our new boss.’ It’s a line I’ve said to numerous friends and family in the past, yet I omit the word ‘gaslighting’ because – if I’m being perfectly honest – I worry that it makes me sound a bit like an over-sensitive snowflake. But gaslighting is real, it happens in real workplaces, and sometimes the word just needs to be said.
The word ‘gaslighting’ comes from a 1938 play and subsequent film called Gaslight, where the main female character, an opera singer, is slowly and subtly manipulated by her husband. His complex deception makes her question her sanity. Borne from a fictional experience, the technique of such cunning manipulation is something that people may, or may not, recognise as a form of behaviour intended to undermine another person. The complexity lies in being able to prove gaslighting, from a victim’s perspective, and whether the gaslighter even recognises their own behaviour. Is it necessary, perhaps, to distinguish intentional gaslightinag from bullying, or simply to hold strong personalities to account for how they treat other people in the office?
Laura Hall, a professional HR consultant, confirms that gaslighting is a recognised coercive behaviour in the workplace. ‘Gaslighting is a subtle form of workplace bullying; a form of emotional and psychological manipulation which, through persistent behaviour, causes you to question your own mind. It [can be] difficult to recognise gaslighting behaviour as it’s often covert and discrete.’ It’s reassuring to know that it may not be all in your head, after all.
The very nature of gaslighting is that it is under the radar and not outward or obvious. My own experience of it at work felt rather pre-planned, with some malicious yet un-pinpointable behaviour that was difficult to record. It felt very much like I, and members of my team, were the ones at fault; hypersensitive, bitter and even unprofessional. On some days I felt optimistic, and that maybe the new boss had just had a difficult week, so I told myself everything was fine. Then something would happen to a colleague and I couldn’t look the other way: minutes of meetings were edited or not recorded, key staff members omitted from important emails, or managers ‘forgetting’ telephone conversations. In my case, it occurred as part of a takeover by a new company, and the systemic gaslighting culture was, I believe, a way to assert control and streamline the headcount. After all, it is cheaper to encourage staff to resign than to pay multiple redundancy packages.
Is there anything that can be done if you feel you are a victim of gaslighting at work? ‘The key [to recognise gaslighting] is that it’s not just a one-off incident but persistent behaviour’, Hall confirms. ‘To address the issue it’s important to document evidence of the behaviours including incidents, information about what happened, [and keep] email records which can be used to approach the issue with senior management and HR. Any next steps will need to be taken in line with the company policies and practices, and could result in disciplinary action if the behaviour persists.
Although my own experience of gaslighting certainly affected me emotionally at the time, I did resign, along with 11 of my colleagues. My desire to be free from the negative environment trumped my need to seek retribution. I even wondered whether the people who were allegedly gaslighting the staff even realised they were doing it? It can be a fine line, after all, between being assertive and being disrespectful.
Sean Cai*, a now retired senior manager of a large national corporation, was accused of gaslighting another colleague but became, himself, the victim. ‘I managed a team of 32 and, several years ago, one of my new employees accused me of gaslighting them.’ Cai says he was genuinely taken by surprise at the accusation. ‘We never socialised together, and I think they just did not like me much as a manager. I was presented with scenarios where I had failed to invite this person to meetings, and I was accused of favouritism by asking others to take on key projects. I hadn’t realised they felt this way. In the end I was forced out of a job I loved and I didn’t feel I had any comeback from the accusations. I wish they had spoken to me about it sooner so I realised how they felt.’
For my own part, I found talking to trusted colleagues really helped, as I no longer questioned my sanity. Noting events down and asking for instructions in writing, rather than over the phone, was also useful for me. Gaslighting is complex, it can be subtle, and it’s worth considering that the person behaving in this way may not realise they are doing it, and they may not realise the impact of their behaviour. On the other hand, as per the villain in the original play, a person might be cunning in their actions and have full intention to undermine their victim’s confidence. Whether with intent or through ignorance, gaslighting is clearly immoral and needs to be addressed. Unlike our opera-singing protagonist, who sees gaslights that dim without being touched, we need to call the behaviour what it is and not let our own fires go out.