If you’ve never seen the 1944 movie Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, watch it now. You’ll then understand the psychological and manipulating form of abuse known as gaslighting.
You also may realize that you’re a witness to—or victim of—gaslighting at work. It’s a disturbingly common workplace trend. In fact, a poll by human resources software and services provider MHR shows that one in two workers between the ages of 18 and 54 have experienced gaslighting at work.
Let’s look at what gaslighting really means, its effects and pervasiveness, and what you can do if you’re being gaslighted.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is intentional, a systematic process that uses lying and false information to make the victim doubt themselves, their capabilities, their instincts, and their own sense of reality. While usually thought of in terms of a couple in a private relationship, the innate power dynamics at the workplace support the behavior. The person in power, like a boss or team leader, gaslights a person with less power (their subordinate) who is unable to fight back.
More than bullying or simple dishonesty, gaslighting at the workplace is a deliberate form of abusive manipulation. Usually perpetrated by a narcissist or psychopath-type personality, it results in victims questioning their recollections of events. This leads to self-doubt, which can then result in silencing the victim altogether. Victims, who tend to be empathic, kind-hearted, and ethical people, often experience anxiety and depression, and are sometimes forced to leave the workplace completely in order to survive.
Gaslighting is everywhere
Gaslighting happens in every workplace, in every industry. However, some work environments are more conducive to the vicious behavior than others. Hospitals are susceptible, especially in the surgical wards where hierarchy is highly valued, there’s an unspoken code of silence and it’s a high-stress, high-stakes job.
In their study, “Workplace Bullying Among Surgeons—the Perfect Crime,” published in the Annals of Surgery, doctors Kevin Pei and Amalia Cochran found that bullying, with its significant overlap into other forms of systematic abuse of power and “intentional harm-doing by peers” is experienced by at least half of surgeons. Surgical trainees and surgeons alike experience consequences including loss of control, burnout, and suicide.
The behavior is first emulated by trainees and junior faculty who learn by example, say Pei and Cochran, and then rationalized as normal for surgeons in general.
Psychoanalyst Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, agrees, saying gaslighters aren’t born, they’re made. “A gaslighter is a student of social learning. They witness it, feel the effects of it, or stumble upon it, and see that it is a potent tool. It’s a cognitive strategy for self-regulation and co-regulation,” she explains.
And it gets worse.
Nurses who report misconduct experience retaliation, says registered nurse Kathy Ahern, Ph.D. Many employers discredit employees who report gaslighting in the workplace, using the same tactics as the original abusers.
“‘Whistle-blower gaslighting’ creates a situation where the whistle-blower doubts her perceptions, competence, and mental state. These outcomes are accomplished when the institution enables reprisals, explains them away, and then pronounces that the whistle-blower is irrationally overreacting to normal everyday interactions,” writes Ahern.
How to tell you’re being gaslighted at work
There are definite signs of gaslighting you should be aware of. It’s important to recognize these and understand that the behavior usually happens gradually over time. In her book, Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis dedicates a chapter to gaslighting in the workplace.
She says the behavior is more common than most of us realize, and destroys people, careers and companies. Look for supervisors who routinely:
Take credit for your work
Ridicule you in front of other employees
Pretend not to understand you
Micromanage every aspect of your work
Blame everything on you
Question your memory
Cancel scheduled events and don’t tell you
Spread lies and deny doing so if confronted
One particularly chilling example of how gaslighters operate is that they fly into seemingly uncontrolled rages when things don’t go their way—but can also control and mask their anger in order to hide what they’re doing. They will smile when saying something malicious to you so nearby colleagues who see you in discussion have no idea of what’s really going on.
Sarkis says the behavior is so shocking to those that have never encountered it before, that you may not even quite believe the person said what they did. This makes documenting everything extremely important and is one of the first steps to stopping the abuse.
How to handle coworkers and supervisors who gaslight
You need to know something’s wrong in order to fix it. Before you can document evidence of gaslighting, you need to be aware of exactly what’s happening.
“Gaslighting only works when a victim isn’t aware of what’s going on. Once you become alert to the pattern, it will not affect you as much,” writes psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker. That’s not to say you ignore the issue, but it does allow you to understand that you are dealing with an insecure person who needs to feel superior in order to function. In other words, you are in no way to blame; you are right and they are wrong.
Also, you can preempt some of the practices gaslighters use. For instance, when they tell you the date and time of an important meeting, confirm that information by email. Copy the entire group or meeting organizer in order to force the gaslighter to make their position public.
When you have ideas on a project, offer them in writing so you are seen as the originator and given credit. For the same reason, Sarkis suggests that you regularly meet with a senior manager at your company (who is someone other than the offender) to update them on the projects you’re working on.
Once you recognize there’s a problem, protect yourself. Sarkis advises having a witness present with you in every interaction you have with the abuser: never be alone with the gaslighter. Document exactly what goes on, including reports you make to your company’s HR department and their responses. She advises that you record the information on a private device that you own, not on a company phone or tablet, which will be confiscated in the event you are fired or quit.
Check your employer’s workplace policy regarding harassment or bullying, to see if there are any steps in place you can use to guide you. If you’re able to confront the gaslighter with evidence of the abuse, do so. However, it will likely end up with denials on their side and possibly result in heightened abuse. If you still want to speak to the offender, do so with an HR representative or with the abuser’s direct boss present.
Your legal options
You have legal options too, whether you decide to stay with the company or leave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) calls this type of behavior harassment, and says for it to be illegal, “the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” It’s in the best interest of your employer to stop the gaslighting, because if the harassment is deemed to foster in a hostile work environment, they’re automatically liable.
Speak to an attorney or to the EEOC for advice on whether filing a lawsuit is an option. If the abuser has violated federal law, you'll need to first file a charge with the EEOC. You’re protected from retaliation too: “EEO laws prohibit punishing job applicants or employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment.” That means you cannot be retaliated against if you file a complaint or otherwise participate in an EEO investigation or lawsuit. This protects you from everything including verbal or physical abuse to increased scrutiny and punitive evaluations or demotions.