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Gaslighting at work: what it is and how to handle it

Gaslighting at work: what it is and how to handle it

Gaslighting may be buzz-word, but it describes a behaviour that's been going on for decades. Essentially, gaslighting is a form of bullying and an abuse of power. Many of us are falling victim to gaslighting at work, but how can we spot the signs and what can we do about it?

What is gaslighting?

The term gaslighting "embraces a cocktail of inappropriate and often manipulative behaviour", says Christine Pratt, founder of the National Bullying Helpline.

People who 'gaslight' deploy psychological manipulation tactics in order to assert control over another individual. This is a form of bullying, and although there has been much focus on gaslighting in relationships and personal lives, gaslighting at work is also a common occurrence.

A survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that almost one third of people have been bullied at work. According to Pratt, a large number of people who have work-related stress are victims of gaslighting at work, which may otherwise be described as "subtle workplace bullying".

Gaslighting as a form of gender discrimination

While both the perpetrators and victims of gaslighting can be men and women, women are more likely to become victims of bullying than men. This is particularly true of gaslighting because the underpinning intent to manipulate, undermine and control is often used by men as a form of gender discrimination against women.

This issue has been around for decades and can happen to any woman, no matter how intelligent or successful. Unfortunately, this was the case for creative television producer Sylvia Anderson, who is best known for co-creating the Thunderbirds series in the sixties with her husband Gerry. Her daughter Dee Anderson describes what happened:

"Over the years her confidence was chipped away at and undermined (by the corporation). She was the creative partner out of her and Gerry, and yet unlike Gerry she was cut out of royalties, and cut out of videos. He received all the accolades and was awarded an MBE. Every time Sylvia wrote a book, the corporation threatened her, and her confidence was completely eradicated."

Sadly, Sylvia passed away in 2016 and never saw the millions of pounds she was owed in royalties. The way in which she was pushed aside and undermined by her employer serves as an important reminder of how devastating gaslighting can be, and how it has been used in a patriarchic, sexist society to try to silence and eradicate talented women.

Dee Anderson's investigation into her mother's wrongful treatment began when she found a contract "with my mother's name literally crossed out, as if trying to eradicate her".

How to recognise gaslighting

While gaslighting is a useful word that can enable people to identify a set of behaviours that they have been victim to, it can also be misunderstood. Occupational psychologist Professor Chris Lewis believes that when many people think of gaslighting they think of being ignored, and warns that this understanding is too narrow:

"It's about reducing someone's self-esteem to a point where it becomes dangerous and painful."

In the workplace, damaging a person's self-esteem is usually achieved over time through a number of behaviours intended to manipulate and undermine the victim.

What are the signs of gaslighting at work?

Gaslighting is a form of bullying that can be subtle and passive. Unfortunately, this can make gaslighting harder to spot, especially if you are the one subjected to it and as a result have lost confidence in your own judgement.

These are some of the behaviours that someone gaslighting at work may exhibit:

  • A lack of openness and transparency.
  • A refusal to follow policies that protect employees. For example, not acknowledging an employee complaint or investigating a formal grievance.
  • A failure to provide the full facts and withholding information. This can be a way of setting a person up to fail.
  • Moving employee goalposts, without giving notice or any engagement with an employee.
  • Calling last-minute meetings but failing to share important information beforehand.
  • Handing out knee-jerk suspensions over minor issues where a discussion or an informal meeting will have resolved any misunderstanding.
  • Giving instant dismissals without following the proper company process.
  • A failure to carry out fair grievance or disciplinary investigations and deciding in advance of an investigation that an employee's complaint will not be upheld.
  • Deploying undermining behaviour intended to destroy team member's confidence. For example, open criticism or more passive techniques like leaving a room while that person is speaking.

If you have not experienced gaslighting at work you may feel:

  • Non-credible, feeling like your opinions don't matter.
  • Undermined when someone constantly belittles your opinions.
  • Excluded, which can include being left out of meetings you should attend, or someone leaving the room or ignoring you when you speak.
  • Unconfident, as a result of someone's pattern of behaviour toward you.
  • Highly stressed and unproductive, which are two main consequences of the above emotions.

Who are the perpetrators of gaslighting at work?

Gaslighting by a manager to a more junior member of staff is the most common form of gaslighting at work. In fact, TUC found that 72% of workplace bullying cases are carried out by a manager. Perpetrators of gaslighting at work abuse their professional position of power and cross a line in order to damage an individual's confidence and self-esteem.

However, it is important to note that gaslighting can occur between any two colleagues, no matter their professional seniority level. It is a drive to bully based on the urge to control someone else. This psychological drive can be caused by a number of contributing factors.

Gaslighting at work may also be embedded in company culture. When this is the case, it is usually taught to a broad group of employees from the top down and is condoned at corporate management level.

How to deal with gaslighting at work

Confronting the person who is gaslighting you at work is an option, but it may not necessarily be the best one for you. As Lewis explains, this can become an impossible task if your confidence and self-esteem have been undermined. He advises that if you do take this course of action, calmly inform the perpetrator that you are aware of what they are doing, how it makes you feel, and ask them to stop.

Often though, there needs to be a more formal intervention for gaslighting at work. Official government guidelines on workplace bullying advise to escalate the issue through the following channels, as set out in The ACAS Code of Practice:

  • A manager.
  • The Human Resources (HR) department.
  • A Trade Union representative.

It is important to remember that the best course of action for you will depend on what makes you feel the most safe and comfortable. Lewis also cautions that raising workplace gaslighting with a manager will depend on that individual's ability to deal with bullying or emotional abuse, and as such there is a risk of being "disregarded and disbelieved".

Pratt does not agree and believes you need to follow the employer's grievance procedure if your employer is still failing to provide a safe and stress-free environment due to gaslighting. Pratt co-wrote The ACAS Code of Practice and fought hard for the rights of the employee in complex situations such as this. Employees should refer to the ACAS codes of practice, which set out fairness guidance for employees, as well as for employers.

Help for the victims of gaslighting

If you are concerned that your mental health is suffering badly as a consequence of gaslighting or a toxic workplace, it is important that you speak to your GP or contact a mental health service.

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