One of the most popular—and alarming—topics to get more attention in the past few years is gaslighting. Searches for the word “gaslighting” on Merriam Webster’s site went up 1,740 percent last year. The dictionary publisher even named it 2022’s “word of the year.”
Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that makes the victim question what’s true, and doubt themselves to an extreme point. It happens in all kinds of relationships and environments—at home, in personal relationships, in politics, with doctors—and at work.
Gaslighting in the workplace is more serious than bullying or disrespectful behavior. It’s a deliberate form of abusive manipulation. It’s a form of harassment that can also be illegal.
What’s tricky is, by definition, it’s hard to “see” gaslighting at work when it’s happening to you.
“Gaslighting is often tough to identify because the root goal and cause of gaslighting is manipulation,” says career and executive leadership coach Chelsea Jay. “Colleagues and leaders who gaslight others in the workplace usually do it because they want others to see their point of view and agree with their realities.”
When a person in power is gaslighting at work, their victim wants to please them or make a good impression and won’t push back. That’s why the gaslighter can be so effective and undetected for so long.
But you can see examples of gaslighting between others. Here’s what to look for in a suspected gaslighting situation, and how to handle it.
Signs of gaslighting at work
Jay says these are the signs to look for when you suspect a colleague or supervisor is gaslighting employees (and signs to look for wherever you work, to make sure gaslighting doesn’t start!).
How gaslighters interact with others
When a gaslighter works with colleagues or team members, it’ll be clear who holds the power.
“You’ll often notice there’s usually one person (the gaslighter) that’s the primary one who talks, offers input, and doesn’t get feedback or pushback from anyone in and outside of the meetings,” Jay says. “This is often the ultimate goal for the gaslighter, but detrimental to the team and organization.
“When gaslighting is continuously allowed, you’ll begin to notice less and less pushback or input being given. Employees will stop voicing their concerns and sharing their opinions. You may also notice employees begin to become insecure with their work performance and questioning their expertise.”
This is especially dangerous when someone is in a new role or at a new company, and feeling vulnerable about how much they have to learn. A gaslighter can easily take advantage of an employee who feels inadequate.
Common phrases that gaslighters use
Pay attention to how the gaslighter talks to others. Jay says they’ll use words like these:
“That never happened.”
“Stop being so emotional or sensitive.”
“I never said that.”
“You’re looking too deep into it.”
“He/she didn’t mean it like that.”
“Wow, you get offended so easily.”
“Everyone agrees with me, but you.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You’re making a big deal out of it.”
“Stop overthinking/overanalyzing everything.”
“These phrases in the workplace are dangerous because they are meant to make others question their reality (i.e. what they saw, their perception, and their own intuition),” Jay says.
Read more: How to Handle Unfair Treatment at Work
Common responses by someone who’s being gaslighted
Employees who suffer from gaslighting communicate with self-doubt and low confidence. They undermine their own abilities. Jay says they’ll often use phrases like these:
“Well what do I know?”
“I could be overreacting.”
“My opinion doesn’t matter.”
“I’m probably wrong.”
Now that you know what it looks like, here’s what to do when you see it.
Read more: 13 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and When It Becomes Illegal
What to do when you see gaslighting at your workplace
First, remember the gaslighter is manipulative, so having a rational, professional conversation with them is unlikely to yield anything—or even be possible.
“I never recommend arguing with someone who gaslights others,” Jay says. “Why? It’ll take you on an emotional roller coaster that is hard to get off of. Someone who gaslights others is also really good at turning themselves into the victim by making you feel like the aggressor.”
Jay says a good alternative to confronting them is to write down everything that’s happening.
“I recommend documenting incidents of your encounters with the gaslighter. If you have to work directly with them, make sure to keep a paper trail that you can refer to when needed.”
Next, you should tell a manager about what’s happening, so they can take action, and get HR involved if needed.
“If you have a good relationship with your supervisor, I recommend having a conversation with them regarding your experience with the individual. Bring your paper trail to your meeting so that you can highlight specific examples,” Jay says.
If you do have to interact with the gaslighter, keep it focused on work matters.
“Avoid participating in unnecessary conversations with the person who gaslights others,” Jay says. “Keep things short and brief. Do not take anything personal and stand strong in your beliefs and expertise.”
How to prevent gaslighting at your workplace
There are many steps a company can take to create and maintain a healthy workplace free of gaslighting.
For starters, they can outline what is expected of employees, what is not tolerated, and what will happen if there’s mistreatment, disrespect, or harassment.
“Companies need to implement plans for addressing individuals who bully or gaslight others,” Jay says. “As always, expectations and rules of conduct need to be clear at all times.”
Once employees know what is expected, the positive behaviors have to be practiced and supported.
“In order for a company to thrive and have a positive work culture, accountability needs to be established and enforced,” Jay says. “Workplace civility training needs to be incorporated regularly so that employees understand that respecting each other, communicating with kindness, and lifting others’ voices is a requirement, not an option.”
Jay says workplaces also need to encourage speaking up, and make sure there’s no backlash for doing so.
“Employers need to implement a ‘see something, say something’ policy so that when other employees witness inappropriate or disrespectful behavior they feel empowered to say something in the moment and report it to senior leadership.”
Even if you can’t stop a culture of gaslighting on your own, you can take steps to keep yourself from being a victim to gaslighting at work.
“Take time to do self work,” Jay says. “Work on your self-esteem and confidence so that you don’t fall victim to second-guessing your reality. Believing a gaslighter has the power to damage your self-esteem and can affect how you handle situations in and outside of work in the future. If your company struggles with accountability, conflict resolution, and addressing workplace issues, continue to do the self-work needed in order to thrive personally and professionally.”
Read more: How to Influence Your Company Culture (Even When You’re Not CEO)