How To Know If You're Dealing With Gaslighting At Work
You may be in a situation at work where you feel you are being sabotaged or you are being harassed by your employer or co-worker. When you address these concerns, you are told that you are "crazy" or that what you saw and heard isn't what happened. If this has happened to you, you may be a victim of gaslighting in the workplace.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where the perpetrator tries to convince you that you can't be trusted or that you are losing your mind. The perpetrator's main goal is to gain power and control over you. The more someone can convince you that the problem is you and not them, the less likely you are to seek help. This is exactly what the gaslighter is banking on—that you will keep this person's behavior to yourself out of a feeling of shame. You may have even convinced yourself that you must have caused this person to act this way toward you.
Examples of gaslighting at work:
Sabotaging in secret
You've completed work on a project, and your co-worker offered to turn in both of your assignments since she is meeting with the boss later anyway. That afternoon, the boss asks why she didn't get your assignment, as it was due today. You tell her that your co-worker said she would turn it in for you. Your co-worker overhears you and says, "Don't blame me for not getting your work done on time."
Some people are just saboteurs—they live to see people fail. They mistakenly think that if you fail, they will look better by comparison. They don't realize that one person failing at the office makes it harder for everyone else, including the saboteur themselves. Saboteurs regularly use gaslighting to accomplish their goals: They will lie to your face (or to your boss) that they never said or did something and that you are known around the office for trying to get other people in trouble (a lie). You'll find that gaslighters often accuse other people of doing what they are doing. This is called projecting.
Spying and denying
You could've sworn you logged out of your laptop an hour-and-a-half ago before you went to lunch. But some things on your desk have moved, and the last login was 30 minutes ago. You've been locked out of one of your social media accounts because it says you tried your password too many times. You tell your boss that you think someone logged on to your laptop and tried to access one of your social media accounts. Your boss responds, "You shouldn't be doing personal things on your laptop anyway." When you ask your boss if she saw anyone around your desk, she says, "Nope, not at all. You're just paranoid."
In reality, your boss asked someone at the office to access your laptop. She may have said something innocent-sounding like, "I need a file from her laptop, and she's at lunch. She told me it was OK to access it." This is digital abuse made worse by gaslighting.
Beyond just denying what they did, gaslighters will specifically tell you that you are paranoid to plant a seed of doubt in your mind.
Spinning harassment reports against you
Your boss makes an inappropriate advance on you. But when you report it to HR, your boss tells them that you threatened to tell HR that he harassed you unless he gave you a raise.
When you are harassed by an employer, they will usually tell you no one will believe you. Usually, they will throw in a lie that everyone in your office thinks poorly of you. They may also threaten to have you fired. These are threats designed to make you stay silent about the harasser's abuse. You may even start to question your version of events. This is exactly what the gaslighter wants you to do—not trust yourself to the point where you question your reality.
Signs you're being gaslighted at work:
- There are unexplained logins to your devices or social media accounts.
- Your items disappear and reappear on your desk.
- Work that you turned in has disappeared, and your boss claims they never received it.
- Your employer asks you to meet with them alone and then denies they said or did something during that time.
- Your co-worker or employer isolates you at work.
- You're told by a co-worker or employer that "everyone thinks you're crazy" and that you won't be believed if you report them.
- Your co-worker or boss quietly says racist or sexist things to you, quiet enough that your co-workers don't hear it.
- You feel "teamed up on" by co-workers.
- You are told by your boss that you can show up an hour later than usual tomorrow, but when you do, you are told by the same boss that you have violated company policy.
- Company policies seem to change on a whim and to fit your boss's motives.
How to deal with gaslighting at work:
1. Get grounded in your truth.
Gaslighting is all about distorting your sense of reality. So if you know you're experiencing gaslighting, take time to really sit with what you know to get yourself back grounded in reality. Trusting yourself is key to coping with this type of toxic behavior. (Here's more on what to do after you've been gaslighted.)
2. Do not meet with a gaslighter alone.
If a gaslighter tells you they need to meet with you privately, be very cautious. Consider bringing in a trusted co-worker or another supervisor as a witness. If the gaslighter refuses to allow another person in the room, ask them why. Then tell them that you don't feel comfortable meeting alone. Document this and consider reporting the behavior.
3. Keep documentation.
If you feel you are being gaslighted or harassed at work, keep documentation of the dates, times, and people involved. Write down direct quotes. Do not use an employee-owned device or cloud account to store this information. If you are fired, you will need to turn in those devices.
4. Know your rights.
If you are in the U.S., the way you are being treated may meet the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition of workplace harassment. Go to eeoc.gov for more information. Learn your workplace's protocol (if any) for reporting harassment.
An attorney, especially one that specializes in workplace rights, can give you legal advice and can recommend what steps you should take to protect yourself. An attorney may also be able to tell you if you have a potential harassment case against your employer.
5. Consider leaving your job.
While it's not fair that you should have to leave your job due to someone else's deplorable behavior, think about what it is costing you emotionally. How much chronic stress are you under due to working in this environment? Keep in mind that many gaslighters know how to "fly under the radar"—they do just enough to keep you uncomfortable and off-kilter but not enough that superiors will do something about it. Life is short, and this job could be stressing you out to the point where it is affecting your health. Sometimes leaving the gaslighting situation and looking for something else is your best option.
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Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. is the author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, as well as six previous books. A Licensed Mental Health Counselor and American Mental Health Counseling Association Diplomate, she is in private practice in Tampa, Florida. She received her bachelor's in telecommunication, master's of education in mental health counseling, specialist of education in mental health counseling, and her doctor of philosophy in mental health counseling, all from the University of Florida. Sarkis has presented over 500 times to clinicians, at conferences, and at schools.