Long Reads

How to tell if your boss is gaslighting you at work

Gaslighting isn’t a technique that’s limited to your ex or Donald Trump; your boss could be doing it too. Stylist finds out how to tackle a work woe that’s often difficult to identify.

Gaslighting is not a new term. Taking its name from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light, later adapted for screen in 1940 and 1944, the word refers to a particularly subtle form of psychological manipulation. The behaviour it has now come to denote is just as insidious as it was in the plot of its source material, where a husband slowly tries to convince his wife that she’s insane, to avoid detecting suspicion for a murder he’s committed. Gaslighting is a form of mental deception that, over time, causes a person to doubt their own perception of the world around them.

But recently the word has come back into vogue. As Donald Trump’s ascent to power and the #MeToo movement prompted women the world over to re-evaluate their relationships, it suddenly became apparent that ‘gaslighting’ was the exact word many had been searching for to describe certain patterns of behaviour in their personal lives. 

Gaslighting is difficult to recognise, identify and, most importantly of all, prove. Which is possibly why it happens so frequently.

Gaslighting can be as simple as disputing someone’s recollection of an incident in order to protect your own reputation. Adam Collard of Love Island fame attracted accusations of gaslighting earlier this year, after he denied flirting with someone else to then-partner Rosie Williams – even though she had clearly witnessed the interaction.

But it doesn’t just happen in our personal lives; gaslighting is prevalent in the workplace, too.

“Many people think of it in terms of a power dynamic,” clinical psychologist, Dr Mary C. Lamia, tells Stylist.

“[Gaslighting] often plays a part in the workplace in competitive situations, where one person wants to get ahead and they’re pushing somebody aside. Or when one person wants their way, or there’s an agenda that someone in an organisation wants to carry out, and another person may present an obstacle. So [gaslighting] helps them to push them [out of the way].”

Here, Stylist hears from three women who have endured being gaslighted in the workplace. Read on to find out how they tackled the problem – and what action you can take if it happens to you.

“When I quit, it was like the world went back into colour”: Beth, 26

Photo accompanying testimony of women who have been gaslighted at work.

“I was gaslit by two successive bosses at the same company. First there was a managing director who tried to pit me against a colleague for a year, after I was passed over for a promotion. We only pieced together that we’d been manipulated just before she left, by sitting down to discuss it.

But she was replaced by a new department head, Astrid, who set the tone for her tenure by putting the entire team on six month probation periods, despite the fact we’d been in our roles for several years.

One of my co-workers heard Astrid talking disparagingly about me to another senior staffer. When I fed back that this made me uncomfortable and was unprofessional, Astrid tried to turn the situation around and tell me I was ‘suffering and struggling’ in the new role she’d given me, blaming my mental health for her conduct. She roped in a colleague – who was not my senior – to haul me into a room and discuss how they could lighten my workload because I wasn’t ‘coping’.

I told Astrid I was coping just fine. In response, she claimed I had ‘bad weeks once a month’ and needed to learn to ‘manage my cycles better’. I’ve been working since I was 16 – not once has a boss insinuated that PMS had affected my work. 

Astrid’s behaviour continued – she had extreme mood swings and would go from screaming at staff to hugging us without permission. On one occasion, she cut me off mid-sentence when I was discussing something important to tell me I had ‘beautiful brown eyes’ and then wouldn’t let me finish my query – which was urgent.

I tried to speak to HR but they suggested I ‘let things settle’ with her. Yet after five months, things were so much worse. It quickly became clear they saw us all as replaceable.

When the situation was at its most unbearable, I wanted to quit without notice but I’d just had a mortgage agreed and couldn’t afford it. I applied for 170 positions in two months. When I was finally able to find a new role, Astrid told me it was ‘for the best’. I gave an exit interview to HR where I talked about what I’d gone through but friends who still work there tell me nothing has changed. When I quit, it was like the world went back into colour.

My family and friends were my saviours as far as support went but the experience left scars. Even at my new workplace where the staff are wonderful, I sometimes get paranoid that people are thinking of ways to fire me or force me out. But I know I wasn’t in the wrong. Later I talked to another former manager and he confirmed I’d always done a good job and had never appeared to be ‘unstable’ or ‘struggling’.

My advice to anyone in a similar position is to get everything in writing, even if it’s just keeping notes. Speak to your HR department if you trust them. But sometimes removing yourself physically from the situation is the only way.”

“Head office called us liars”: Lucy, 30

Photo accompanying testimony of women who have been gaslighted at work.

“I’d heard of gaslighting thanks to social media. Then I discussed its meaning with my therapist, while we were talking about a previous romantic relationship. And I started to recognise it was happening at work.

Right now, the teams at my job are restructuring. Along with other colleagues I attempted to pin-down our general manager to find out when the changes would take place and how staff would be supported. But our manager refused to meet with us as a group, instead only arranging one-to-one catch-ups.

We went ahead with the individual meetings – we didn’t have any choice – but quickly discovered that each of us were being fed completely different information. When one of us brought up the discrepancies, the manager would insist ‘I never said that’, or claim they ‘didn’t mean it like that’. 

So we took the matter to Head Office. We were asked questions that insinuated our version of events didn’t happen or that staff themselves were to blame for all the confusion and misinformation. In a follow-up meeting, my manager had the gall to claim that the one-to-one meetings we’d had with them never even happened and Head Office called us liars.

The extent of what was happening only came to light after I set up a WhatsApp group for my colleagues and I to pool together information. Within it we chat about our individual experiences, draw parallels and spot inconsistencies with what we’re being told.

But it’s been so tough. I’m currently signed off work and no longer sleeping properly. I was already on anti-depressants and beta blockers for depression and anxiety respectively, and they were finally starting to work until this situation blew up. My anxiety attacks are the worst they’ve ever been and I’m also grappling with a chronic pain condition that flares up when I’m stressed – which right now, as you can imagine, is a lot. And it’s having an effect on my relationships – I’ve withdrawn completely from my friends and partner. They’ve been nothing but supportive but it’s been a bleak time.  

Therapy has been a literal lifesaver during this period but the situation at work isn’t going to change anytime soon – the company has been completely useless, bar my colleagues who’ve been a support network I couldn’t do without. My only option is to seek other employment and I’m hoping to find a new job soon.

My advice to others is that if it walks like a gaslighter and quacks like a gaslighter, it’s probably a gaslighter. Talk to people you trust because an objective eye is usually the most validating. And remember no one gets paid enough to deal with this kind of s**t.”

“My boss diagnosed me with anxiety”: Chloe, 28

Photo accompanying testimony of women who have been gaslighted at work.

“I only realised I was being gaslighted in my fifth year of working at my company. I’d been reading about gaslighting but hadn’t thought about it in the context of work. It can be so subtle that you believe those projected behaviours about yourself for a long time. When it clicked, I was relieved; I had a name to put to it.

I was signed off last year for two weeks, thanks to issues that spanned my physical and mental health. I didn’t tell my boss the specifics of my leave, I just gave them a sick note. When I returned to work, my manager said it had been noticed how quiet I was on the last day – I’m normally chatty and engaged – and it had affected the rest of the team.

From then onwards, I was labelled as ‘emotional’ and ‘sensitive’, despite my mental and physical health being fine. If I pushed back on anything – a task or an idea – it was interpreted as an inability to cope. Even asking a simple question with a smile drew the response ‘Are you OK? If it’s an issue or you’re feeling stressed, you need to tell us’.

Somehow, my boss diagnosed me with anxiety – a condition they certainly weren’t qualified to identify. Sometimes it was laughable how wildly misconstrued my actions were. Once I had food poisoning and had to leave work quickly or risk throwing up everywhere. My boss took me aside and quietly asked if I was ducking out because I was anxious.

It even altered my perception of myself. For a long time I believed I was too sensitive and stressed to handle working life. The constant citing of my emotional state made me feel weak and stunted my career progression – I reasoned that I couldn’t progress into managing people if I wasn’t able to set an example. I felt trapped and unable to prove anything was wrong because there was no evidence in the first place. 

So I started writing everything down; it assured me I wasn’t imagining things and provided a robust case for me to call a meeting with HR. It was incredibly cathartic; I told them I wanted to hold people accountable for the problems the gaslighting was causing, even if they weren’t aware they were doing it.

Often emotional manipulation isn’t taken seriously in a professional environment because you’re supposed to be removed from that sort of raw sentiment. Employers don’t know how to handle gaslighting; it’s not black and white and can be very subtle and targeted. They can’t be bothered to get to the bottom of it because they can’t see how harmful it is.

HR were incredibly understanding though. Although I couldn’t bring myself to directly discuss it with my boss, he did acknowledge that other people had continued to label me as sensitive when it wasn’t warranted. Since confronting the situation, I haven’t encountered the behaviour anymore but time will tell. It’s not always that easy though – if others are going through a similar situation I’d say, even though it might be difficult, you owe it yourself to address it in some way.”

These are the signs of being gaslighted at work

Photo accompanying testimony of women who have been gaslighted at work.

Stylist talks to author of The Gaslight Effect, Dr Robin Stern for advice on how to deal with a gaslighting situation in your nine-to-five.

Who can be a gaslighter?

“Anyone in any relationship can be a gaslighter. But typically, the person doing the gaslighting is in a more powerful position within the relationship, or is perceived to be in a more powerful position, by the gaslighting victim. So when you are in a hierarchy like work, where you have managers and bosses, it’s a more fertile ground for gaslighting.”

How can I tell if I’m being gaslighted at work?

“If someone is trying to push you around or intimidate you, that’s bullying behaviour. In contrast, gaslighting is a manipulation of your reality. In The Gaslight Effect, I write about the warning signs to look for. Are you constantly second guessing yourself in an interaction? Are you asking yourself whether you’re being ‘too’ anything, like ‘too questioning’ or ‘too whiny’? When you finish a conversation with someone, do you often feel confused and unsure of exactly what happened during the interaction?

This element of gaslighting is why I encourage people to write everything down. Gaslighting is so much more obvious in the written word.

For example, if I didn’t invite you to a meeting and you confronted me about it, I could say, ‘Don’t you think you’re being a little too sensitive?’ Looking at that written down, you can see it’s a pivot being made by someone to get away from being put in a tight spot. Because you might be too sensitive, but what does that have to do with not being invited to a meeting?” 

What are the long-lasting effects of gaslighting?

“Decision-making becomes really hard. People lose sight of what they like, and become isolated from their friends. It can cause depression. You’re losing touch with the way you think, or losing confidence in that process, so it becomes very hard to be the same person that you were prior to the gaslighting.

For example, imagine that you’re shopping for a plant to go in the office. You’re terrified that if you can’t find the right species, the person you’re bringing the plant to is going to tell you: ‘You didn’t really look that hard, did you? Because if you’d really looked for the plant, you’d have found it.’ In reality you went to every shop available, but there’s no way to prove it. That is exhausting and depleting. Now visualise working in that type of emotional environment every single day. It has an effect.”

What should I do if I think I’m being gaslighted?

“There are several tips I give to people who have no choice but to remain in a situation where they’re being gaslighted, such as a job:

  • Name it to tame it. Write down conversations and talk to objective people who can see the things you can’t – I call them flight attendants. For example, go to a friend of yours and say: ‘I feel as if haven’t been told important information or given big assignments, and this is what my boss has said about it’. This person is not in the relationship – they can usually judge whether the behaviour is bad.
  • Write down all your interactions. This will help you sort out what information the gaslighter is giving you is true, and what is false.
  • Identify the topics or situations that trigger the gaslighting. For example, if you find yourself being gaslighted by your boss every time you return from annual leave, note that down and identify it as a trigger. Use it to be mindful of the ways you can navigate the behaviour.
  • Decide if the conversation is a power struggle. If you’re going over the same information again and again, or you find yourself arguing for your reality, stop the grapple for power. You can say something like ‘I want to talk about this but…’ or ‘Let’s have this conversation on email’. You just need to stop that interaction.”

If you, or someone you know, is being gaslighted at work, help is available. Women’s Aid works hard to raise awareness of all forms of abuse and offer expert support to those who are experiencing it and their friends and family. If you are worried that your relationship, or that of a friend or family member, is controlling or unsafe, visit womensaid.org.uk

Images: Getty, Unsplash