Gaslighting in the Workplace: Different Contexts and Implications

Naureen Bhullar

- September 22, 2022

Employee (T): My team member J, has been sending me messages and sexual jokes with double meanings aimed at me, and I feel extremely uncomfortable. Here is a screenshot of the message. I am thinking of filing a sexual harassment complaint.
HR person [after reading the message]: J is known to send such messages to everyone in the team (male or female). You hear such jokes by stand-up comedians all the time on social media these days. We need to be more open-minded. It is not that serious an issue.

This is an example of gaslighting or emotional manipulation in the workplace with respect to sexual harassment. The HR person obviously ignores Employee T’s discomfort, and she is told to become more ‘open-minded’ and take it in her stride. Gaslighting can also be seen with the Respondent giving an inauthentic apology to the Complainant (e.g., “I am sorry if my words or actions made you uncomfortable. No one else in the team – male or female – found my behaviour offensive. So, I thought it was not a big deal.”). Here gaslighting is used by the Respondent (gaslighter in this case) to fool the Complainant by insinuating that they are oversensitive and overreacting or simply crazy for believing that the behaviour was offensive or inappropriate in any way. This is why intent of the Respondent is not included in the definition of the sexual harassment but the impact of the action of the Respondent on the Complainant is.

Women who file sexual harassment complaints are often gaslit. There is evidence to show that women who file complaints end up “in worse jobs and poorer physical and mental health than do women who keep quiet”. There is also rampant retaliation for the Complainant by the Respondent and his friends. One can assume that this retaliation is related to gaslighting as the Respondent and his friends do not deem the offence serious enough to warrant a complaint and therefore undermine the Complainant.

Women who came forward during the MeToo movement faced gaslighting with a lot of well-meaning people also prefacing their responses with, “I can’t believe that X would do this” encouraging a mindset of disbelief at the action. Here are some of the statements from an NPR article on what women reporting sexual harassment face from colleagues:

Gaslighting in the workplace is a major source of concern, whether it is with respect to professional work or with respect to sexual harassment and uncivil behaviour shown by colleagues or bosses. The power inequity in the workplace along with conformity bias may lead employees to ignore potential gaslighting behaviour of colleagues and bosses and suffer the negative consequences of not being believed and damaged self-worth. It has also been described as a form of “subtle workplace bullying”. 

According to Psychology Today, workplace gaslighting may involve some of the following signs:

  • Persistent negative narrative about the gaslightee’s performance and credibility
  • Persistent negative gossip about the gaslightee’s professional and personal characteristics
  • Persistent negative comment or publicity including negative branding or smearing of the gaslightee (e.g., slut-shaming)
  • Persistent negative humour or sarcasm to mock or belittle the gaslightee
  • Persistent professional exclusion from networking, promotion, and development due to in-group bias
  • Persistent and verifiable bullying and intimidation
  • Persistent and verifiable inequitable treatment despite a record of positive contributions

Note the usage of two terms here – “persistent” and “verifiable.” It has to involve multiple incidents over a stretch of time. The “verifiable” aspect will be discussed in more detail below.

UK’s National Helpline for Bullying also includes the following elements of the workplace that make it conducive for gaslighting:

  • Lack of openness and transparency with more one-on-one communication
  • Reluctance to have minutes or notes for meetings
  • Withholding or providing incomplete information (“drip-feed”) as a way of “setting up to fail” the employee
  • Moving goalposts or changing the employee’s job descriptions without any initial discussions
  • Last minute meetings or springing surprises without letting the employee know about the agenda in advance
  • Knee-jerk suspensions over minor issues and instant dismissals without any due process
  • Failure to carry out a fair and thorough disciplinary investigations 
  • Undermining behaviour to destroy the employee’s confidence like open criticism or allegations of complaints without having received any

Gaslighting by bosses

Toxic bosses can also be involved in gaslighting specifically as this helpline question from HBR demonstrates – “What should I do if my boss is gaslighting me?” All bosses who are engaged in gaslighting are toxic but not all toxic bosses are involved in gaslighting, and this latter overt category of toxic bosses are easier one to identify, especially if they are the screaming and bullying in public kinds. The bosses who regularly “undermine accomplishments, diminish self-esteem and block opportunities” fall in this category of gaslighting bosses. 

The subtle and stealthy nature of gaslighting makes it hard to prove. Therefore, there is an emphasis on “verifiable” part in some of the signs mentioned above. The response to this question in HBR also involves verification of gaslighting as the first step. Is he a jerk or a poor communicator? Not necessarily a gaslighting boss? Documenting interactions using emails or having witnesses during meetings is also suggested. This puts the onus of the hard work of providing the proof on the gaslightee. Other strategies include minimizing direct contact with such bosses, confronting, or escalating with extreme caution, and ultimately explore opportunities within the organization away from the boss. 

These suggested responses are stressful on their own and the main strategies are either trying to accumulate proof of being gaslit or walking on eggshells around the perpetrator or plan to escape the situation. It points to a situation of helplessness that is unlikely to change. Gaslighting is associated with feelings of fear, shame, and guilt and can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-worth.

What can organizations do to prevent gaslighting in the organization?

Some of the remedies for preventing gaslighting are also the same ones for promoting a healthy work environment focusing on accountability and transparency. 

  • Documentation of communication is one of the most essential aspects of this and this includes minutes of meetings and emails summarizing oral meetings and discussions.
  • Following due process and scheduling meetings in advance with a written agenda circulated among the team members before the meeting dates are other helpful steps in building a culture that will prevent gaslighting of employees.

Prevention of gaslighting with sexual harassment complaints

It is vital for the organization to create an environment where the default position for sexual harassment complaints formally and informally is not to question the reality of experiences of the Complainant. It may seem obvious but one of the first steps to protect employees from sexual harassment is to take their complaints seriously. And that means not doubting their stories without any evidence to do so. 

The Complainant may even downplay the conduct and endure the harassment if the workplace is not supportive for filing sexual harassment complaints. This form is called self-gaslighting in which the victim of sexual harassment or assault is both the gaslighter and the gaslightee as she convinces herself that she is to blame and it is her fault and this belief is heavily dependent on the culture around her (Bendt, 2021)*. Therefore, the workplace culture that emphasizes and practises open, empathetic and non-judgmental conversations plays a vital role in preventing self-gaslighting and gaslighting by others. 

* Bendt, Paige (2020) “Self-Gaslighting in Sexual Assault: A Feminist Approach to Reclaiming Agency,” The Macksey Journal: Vol. 1, Article 223.

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