What Does Gaslighting Look Like at Work?
The term “gaslighting" refers to a process of psychological manipulation that causes someone to question their own beliefs, experiences, and sanity. While the phrase is frequently used regarding personal relationships, it can apply to various aspects of our lives—including the workplace.
To combat toxic behavior in our work environment it's important to first have a clear understanding of what gaslighting looks like in the workplace. More often than not, a boss's effort to gaslight an employee takes subtle forms that can leave workers feeling ridiculed, humiliated, uncertain, and insufficient.
Simply put, gaslighting is a subtle way to tear someone down and chip away at their self-confidence. This is why it’s so crucial to recognize when a boss or colleague is attempting to exert control and influence over you through belittling or manipulation. Recognizing signs of gaslighting at work can equip you with needed strategies and resources to call out abusive behavior and retain your confidence, agency, and peace of mind in the workplace.
6 Signs Your Boss Is Gaslighting You
At the end of the day, nobody deserves to be gaslighted. Even in a worst-case scenario in which you are unlawfully fired for calling out inappropriate behavior, a skilled employment law attorney can help protect your employee rights and earn the compensation you rightfully deserve. Keep reading to learn 6 signs that your boss may be gaslighting you in the workplace.
#1. They blatantly lie and deny their promises, even when you have proof.
Gaslighters often go back on their promises and deny past claims. Even worse, they tend to place the blame on the victim. For instance, say you spoke with your boss on Monday, and they approved you leaving a few minutes early on Friday to make an appointment.
Friday rolls around, and you find yourself suffering from whiplash as your boss claims, “That never happened!” and even negates your memory of the conversation (“Why would I even say that?”). If this scenario sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your boss is gaslighting you. Likewise, if you emailed a presentation due at the end of the week (and have the "sent" receipt to prove it), a gaslighting boss might question your sanity ("I never got it!" or "Obviously you forgot") regardless of any proof you have.
#2. They lash out at you if you question them.
One of the primary behaviors that gaslighters exhibit is defensiveness. Nobody likes to be wrong—it’s human nature, after all—but a gaslighter often evades any notion of accountability, let alone has the decency to apologize.
Rather than admit to an act of wrongdoing, they’re more likely to pin the blame on you. Consider the scenario above about the presentation you know you emailed, but your boss claims they never received.
Even if you politely and respectfully push a tad further (“Would you mind doing a quick scan of your inbox again, just to make sure?”), you’ll likely be met with more abusive language (“I told you I don’t have it!” or “Are you calling me a liar?”). Playing the victim via defensiveness and lack of responsibility is a telltale sign of gaslighting.
#3. They trap you in a push-and-pull cycle of abusive language and praise.
Many gaslighters utilize a wound-and-soothe cycle where they alternate between inflicting harm (such as using insulting or abusive language) and positive reinforcement. This often creates a never-ending cycle of doubt where a victim ends up dismissing their negative feelings as a result of the “soothing” that follows it.
In many cases, the gaslighter will withhold positivity until the victim reaches the very brink of their breaking point, leading to an overwhelming accumulation of emotion. As you can imagine, this is extremely detrimental to a person’s confidence and emotional wellbeing, and can quickly lead to fatigue, burnout, and poor mental health.
#4. They contradict themselves to confuse you about your role and responsibilities.
Maybe this sounds familiar: your boss demands that you prioritize a certain task at the beginning of the week, but then proceeds to deny this towards the end of the week. Even worse, they may follow up this confusion with a degrading question, such as, “Why on earth would this take precedent over that?” or a sardonic comment, like, “Are you stupid? Which task do you think matters more?”
In another scenario, maybe your boss tells you to do one task a certain way, only to later tell you that you’re doing it wrong—all while making you feel incompetent and at fault. As you can imagine, this can lead an employee to question themselves and experience diminished self-confidence. Such behavior is indicative that your boss is gaslighting you at work.
#5. They make you feel like you’re never doing enough, even when you’re doing everything.
Have you ever felt that you’ve gone above and beyond to earn your superior’s approval, yet it never seems to be enough for them? Maybe they don’t seem to understand your overflowing plate, let alone the superhuman skill that was required of you to fulfill their every wish.
Regardless of how thin you stretch yourself, gaslighters are rarely satisfied. Rather, they’ll always demand more from you—even if you literally work yourself into the ground. Setting boundaries in the face of gaslighting is one of the most difficult things an employee will face, but it’s essential if you hope to prioritize your mental health and emotional wellbeing both inside and outside of the workplace.
#6. They make you feel crazy, sensitive, or ashamed—especially in front of your peers.
Gaslighters are pros at ridiculing and belittling. Sadly, this can lead an employee to have a negative and inaccurate perception of themselves and their actions.
For example, a gaslighter can easily cause a worker to confuse their perspective. Rather than perceiving the act of standing up for their rights as just, professional, and necessary, an employee may be convinced to view their decision as “being too sensitive” or “acting crazy.”
Such mind games can easily jeopardize our mental and emotional wellbeing in the workplace and lead to worsening doubts about our identity, competency, and employee rights. More often than not, a gaslighter will also seize the opportunity to belittle and ridicule employees in front of their peers, leading to increased feelings of humiliation, doubt, and shame.
What Should I Do if My Boss Is Gaslighting Me?
There are steps you can take if you’re being gaslighted at work. No one should have to endure inappropriate behavior, ridicule, or humiliation at the hands of a gaslighter, regardless of their position at the company.
Gaslighting is illegal assuming a victim can prove to the court that such behavior is harassment and/or discrimination. There can and should be legal repercussions for someone who gaslights an employee or colleague.
Every American worker has the right to work in a safe, non-toxic workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination. To pursue legal action, consider taking these steps to put an end to inappropriate behavior:
Step 1: Determine if your boss is truly gaslighting you.
There are 3 questions you can ask yourself to get a better idea of this: Do they frequently attempt to dominate the conversation and the people around them? Is what they’re saying untrue? Are they violating social norms in their effort to shame and humiliate you?
Sadly, many American employees suffer at the hand of a toxic boss who isn’t technically gaslighting them. While this doesn’t make their inappropriate behavior okay, it does make a difference in whether or not you have the means to take legal action.
Step 2: Document your interactions.
Consider keeping an ongoing journal of your interactions with the person gaslighting you. Make sure you use timestamps, dates, and details when possible. The purpose of documenting such activity is twofold:
- It may be useful as evidence later on when you decide to notify HR or a higher department in the organization.
- It can help you prioritize your mental health by recognizing patterns of behavior that are toxic and symptomatic of gaslighting, allowing you to squash any lingering doubt you have about both your experience and your rights as an employee.
Step 3: Seek external assistance.
While confronting the gaslighter directly might seem logical, it’s important to proceed with caution. Unfortunately, a toxic person who is already prone to defensiveness, outbursts, and manipulation may not be the type of boss you’d want to confront head-on (although some employees may feel otherwise, and that’s okay).
The majority of the time, however, it’s best to seek outside help from your HR department or a trusted professional higher up in the company. You may also consider asking for the opinion of a trusted colleague to hear their thoughts or determine if they've experienced similar behavior before you take the matter to HR. This is exactly where your documentation will come into play as evidence and can help dissuade HR from passing the situation off as a one-time issue.
Your HR department can act as a neutralizing party as they assist you with finding a solution and hopefully help improve the work environment for both you and other coworkers who have experienced gaslighting at the hands of your supervisor.
Passionately Protecting the Rights of Wronged Employees
At Donati Law, PLLC, we understand the detrimental impact that poor working conditions can have on someone's life. No employee deserves to spend 40-hour work weeks at the mercy of a toxic boss, manager, or colleague. Fortunately, there are legal paths you can take to improve a hostile workplace for both yourself and your peers.
For more than 35 years, our skilled employment law attorneys have advocated tirelessly on behalf of our clients in Memphis and the Mid-South. If you’re suffering due to a supervisor’s inappropriate behavior, you don’t have to tolerate it any longer. You can count on us to provide the reliable legal counsel you require, wisely guide your steps, and help you pursue the compensation you deserve.
Are you experiencing harassment or discrimination in the workplace? It’s imperative to act now. Call (901) 209-5500 to request your private consultation.