Gaslighting in the Workplace – Bullying and Harassment

gaslighting workplace

A lie that is repeated long enough eventually can be seen as the truth (Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino (1997))

Lately, I have seen a significant increase in gaslighting incidents within workplaces.  The term gaslighting is more commonly associated with relationships and friendships. However, with a rise in bullying and harassment the term is becoming more common and a term for explaining behaviours within the workplace environment.

So, what exactly is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a term that stemmed from a 1944 movie titled “Gaslighting.”  The movie featured a husband that manipulates his young wife to a point where she no longer trusts her memory, perception or judgment and thinks she is losing her mind.  The gaslighter, as is common, exuded a charming and well-liked personality.

More recently, gaslighting has been used when describing certain workplace situations. It is more commonly identified as a technique of emotional and psychological manipulation – including obvious and transparent tactics and/or highly deceitful and calculated behaviours such as;

  • Shaming;
  • Being dismissive and denying events/discussions;
  • Repetition of lies;
  • Minimising their conduct “You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill”, “I’m just trying to help you” “You’re misinterpreting things”;
  • Withholding information and /or stonewalling;
  • Questioning your competence. This can sometimes include blaming such as “are the kids keeping you up at night” “are you having relationship issues?”

The person who has been gaslighted often has feelings of second-guessing, they question their sensitivity, feel confused or even crazy at work, notice changes to their personality, often feel undermined and have a loss of confidence.  The gaslighter is a master manipulator and often doesn’t necessarily look like the bad guy/girl you’re used to in the movies.

Gaslighting can occur by a Manager/Supervisor to an employee or by an employee to their Supervisor/Manager; it is not discriminatory on your workplace status.  The instances of gaslighting can vary in severity and frequency, it commences gradually.  As gaslighting behaviour can be broad, it can be misused or confused with other behaviours such as;

  • An honest disagreement;
  • Stubborn Individuals;
  • White lies masking more painful or difficult truths;
  • Rudeness and discourtesy;
  • Erroneous and confusing directions; and
  • An argument from a misunderstanding.

Similar to friendship gaslighting, workplace gaslighting can include mobbing, where the gaslighter “recruits” by bringing in allies, it can include gossiping, excluding and sabotaging within the workplace.

How does gaslighting affect the workplace?

Gaslighting will affect the culture and therefore the productivity in a workplace.  Gaslighting can result in higher use of sick leave, tarnishing of the employer’s reputation and increased staff turnover with unhappy employees leaving the workplace.

In addition to the loss of valuable staff members, gaslighting can also cause injury to employees, resulting in WHS breaches, Fair Work/Industrial Relations actions and workers compensation claims.

Regardless of your position within a business, if you are on the receiving end of gaslighting, it is likely that you will or have been exposed to psychological effects.  It is important that you seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Ways to assist in minimising/preventing/stopping gaslighting.

Early identification.  Identify and act;

  • Stop seeking validation from the gaslighter – minimise contact (where possible);
  • Stop apologising (it’s likely you have nothing to apologise for);
  • Document the events where possible (in writing or recording). Is it occurring by email? Then cc another person into the emails;
  • Then assert yourself! Remember – gaslighters will try to turn the situation around.  Documenting stops this;
  • Report incidents within the workplace;
  • Where possible obtain a witness;
  • Talk to HR (or another representative). Explain what gaslighting is and the events that have transpired with you;
  • Find support (medical and personal). You need to regain faith in your own reality and perception.

Don’t forget, if you identify gaslighting in the workplace, report it and act on it – it’s a form of bullying and harassment.  Generally, confronting them directly will not get you anywhere.

What can you do to help prevent gaslighting within your workplace?

Don’t just talk the talk – walk it.  Make a conscious decision to take a stand and make an effort to continue to improve your workplace culture.  Have strong bullying and harassment morals, ethics and workplace practices that are adhered to.

Lastly, make up your own mind!   Have you been told something about someone? Sound out of character? One way in which to avoid being manipulated to join a gaslighter is that you should ALWAYS make your own enquiries.  It’s a basic plan, don’t be lazy with your decision making.  Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, before joining the mob with your pitchfork.

Please note that this article is meant for general information only and is not intended to be medical or legal advice.  If you have or think you may be affected by gaslighting, you should seek advice specific to your circumstances as soon as possible.


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