At a glance
- Gaslighting hinges on an abuser convincing their victim that what they know to be true is false, forcing them to question their perception of reality.
- Long known to occur in toxic romantic relationships, it is now acknowledged as occurring in other types of relationships, including workplace relationships.
- Although gaslighting is not specifically named in legislation, it falls within the definition of bullying in the Fair Work Act 2009.
Of the various forms of bullying in the workplace, gaslighting is one of the most insidious.
It is predicated on manipulation and typically involves a long-term strategy of undermining another person, causing them self-doubt and lowering their self-esteem.
The end goal is to make someone question their version of reality and to skew the power dynamic in the perpetrator’s favour.
Most people associate gaslighting with unhealthy romantic relationships. It was first depicted in a marriage in the 1940 film Gaslight, the adaptation of a lesser-known 1938 play of the same name.
In the film, Paula Alquist Anton, played by Ingrid Bergman, has a thieving husband, Gregory, who convinces her that she is a kleptomaniac and too mentally unstable to go out in public.
Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, sneaks into the attic to steal his wife’s jewels while she is downstairs in the living room. When he turns on the lights in the attic, it reduces the supply of gas to the downstairs lamps, which start to flicker.
When she later comments on this, he accuses her of being paranoid. Gregory repeats his lies so often that Paula starts to question her own perception of reality. Thus, the term was coined.
Gaslighting in the workplace often involves two people in a relationship of trust, because this increases the chances of the victim being successfully manipulated.
Gaslighting is more likely to occur between a manager and an employee or between two colleagues who work closely together and may be competing for a promotion or a project.
It may begin with the gaslighter sharing confidences or making a promise that they later deny.
“The drivers of insecurity and anxiety in the gaslighter are present in both [romantic and workplace] relationships, and gaslighting is ultimately a desire to control and manipulate,” says Anne Sidebottom, senior associate at Adlerian Consulting.
She adds that the perpetrator is often unaware of their underlying motivations to gaslight others – they are simply striving to gain control over people and circumstances, to be “right” and look good.
Robin Young, head of national workplace relations at Holman Webb Lawyers, agrees.
“It’s much more likely that a person with power will gaslight a person who is lower than them in the hierarchical structure, because there is a power imbalance,” he says, having observed 30 years of psychological injury compensation claims.
It could be a boss who sets up an employee to fail at a project by withholding all the necessary information or by dishonestly giving them the wrong instructions.
“Who’s going to question that? A boss can almost do it without fear of being caught,” says Young.
However, there is an important distinction between gaslighting in the workplace and in romantic relationships.
When gaslighting occurs in a romantic relationship, it is the bond between two people that is at stake.
In the workplace, a third party can suffer – the organisation.
“Gaslighting can have an incredibly detrimental impact on those who are experiencing it, as well as contributing to a toxic workplace culture,” says Wanda Tompkins, HR and employee engagement expert and director of operations at Theara.
“It is insidious, manipulative and harmful, so it’s essential that employers are prepared to tackle it. Gaslighting tends to be subtle, and its covert nature can make it difficult to challenge.”
While gaslighting is not a new concept, interest in the phenomenon has soared in recent years.
The Oxford Dictionary named gaslighting one of the most popular words of 2018. Also in 2018, therapist Stephanie Sarkis publicly described US President Donald Trump as “a classic gaslighter in an abusive relationship with America”.
She asked Americans to consider his statement “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not happening” as a “classic gaslighting technique – telling victims that others are crazy and lying, and that the gaslighter is the only source for ‘true’ information”.
In September 2020, during the pandemic, Trump told his supporters during a campaign rally that COVID-19 affects “virtually nobody” on the same day that the US death toll for the virus passed 200,000.
He accused those who challenged his views of spreading “fake news”, using the term about 900 times in tweets before being banned from Twitter.
A hallmark of gaslighting involves repetition and, with it, the erosion of an individual’s self-worth and skill at their job.
At first, it may seem as if there has been nothing more than a misunderstanding, says Sidebottom. She cites the example of an employee and a manager agreeing to a date that a piece of work will be submitted. The manager subsequently brings the date forward while denying a date had ever been set.
“What may have felt like a misunderstanding the first time will repeat itself over and over,” explains Sidebottom.
“It might be dates, details, issues, risks or any other elements of work that are denied, ignored or otherwise rebuffed. Over time, this leads the employee to question the facts that they discuss with their manager and to question their perception of reality.”
The proliferation of digital communication channels in the workplace has expanded the opportunities for gaslighting to occur.
A gaslighter may deliberately employ vague language to sow seeds of confusion and insecurity, leaving the recipient to stew over the intended tone.
For example, sending a one-word reply to an email that consists of the word “No” can leave a person in agony as to its meaning, especially if the sender is a manager.
“The person who receives the email doesn’t know what to think. So, what do they do? They doubt themselves and worry that they have done something wrong,” says Young.
Ignoring emails can also be a powerful tool of manipulation, because it makes the sender feel insecure and confused.
Additionally, a gaslighter may rely on emails as “proof” that their conduct towards their accuser has been exemplary, while they convey a more critical tone face to face.
Tackling the problem
Gaslighting thrives on ambiguity, and it is especially difficult to prove in the workplace. To counter it, formalise decisions in writing wherever possible, suggests Sidebottom.
This could include documenting a meeting or conversation with a follow-up email that confirms what was agreed and any future steps.
“Keep a diary, because contemporaneous evidence is very powerful,” says Young.
“Tell someone you can rely on. You may wish to speak to someone in human resources, even if you ask them not to act on it. Or you may ask them to investigate it and stop the behaviour.”
Sidebottom suggests seeking support through an Employee Assistance Program or another mental health professional.
A GP is also a good first port of call and can provide a referral if needed.
Professional development or coaching may be needed to help build confidence and develop strategies for dealing with difficult situations.
Sidebottom believes that the most effective approach an organisation can take is preventative, coupled with a positive workplace culture that allows people to speak up.
Once gaslighting has been established and reported, approaches such as mediation and disciplinary action are needed to show that it will be dealt with. Robust psychometric testing during interviews may raise red flags about concerning behavioural patterns.
Young laments that he has never once witnessed a bully admit to their bad behaviour when confronted. Tompkins nonetheless believes that gaslighting should be openly addressed.
“Gaslighting thrives on secrecy and shame,” she says. “Shame keeps people small and prevents them from seeking support.
"Bringing this into the light is the first step in addressing the issue. Being able to understand and identify gaslighting will give people the confidence and resilience required to challenge it.”
Escalate it to a claim
Young has never seen gaslighting used as a specific allegation in a workplace compensation claim for psychological injury, nor is it mentioned by name in legislation.
This means gaslighting falls under the definition of bullying, which was added to the Australian Fair Work Act a decade ago. Bullying is defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety, which includes psychological safety.
“A person can seek an order from the tribunal to compel the employer and the individual concerned to stop engaging in that behaviour. They can also make orders to prevent people from working together,” explains Young.
It is worth noting that bullying is determined through the victim’s eyes, rather than whether the individual accepts blame or responsibility.
It doesn’t require intent – the behaviour must simply be unreasonable. The circumstances will be looked at in their entirety.
Young has observed that, all too often, the bully remains at the workplace and the person who suffered the injury leaves permanently. He believes this is because the person doing the gaslighting is often a senior employee.
“In my experience, the person engaged in this sort of conduct doesn’t often get pulled up. The incidence of this is very high, but often the bully is not sanctioned…because it often involves a senior employee.”
Young believes that it is incumbent on organisations to work hard at rooting out gaslighting and to take any accusation seriously.
“If an organisation takes meaningful steps towards stopping the behaviour, then you don’t have a situation that results in absenteeism, workers compensation claims and allegations flying backwards and forwards,” he says.
“All of this sucks the life out of you and the business. The culture crumbles and people will start leaving.”
For more information and support, contact the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).