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The recent rise of grievances involving gaslighting

Written by Hannah Copeland on 7 September 2022

Most of us associate gaslighting with romantic or familial relationships. But lately, the term is beginning to crop up in relation to workplace disputes.

Originating from the 1938 stage play ‘Gas Light’ – in which a husband attempts to manipulate his wife into thinking she’s going insane – gaslighting is a form of covert brainwashing in which the perpetrator attempts to make somebody question their own reality, memory or perceptions.

Though it first appeared in the context of psychology in the 1960s, the term gaslighting has recently made its way into mainstream vernacular, becoming a prevalent theme in TV and film and even being referenced in political debates.

Just as an abusive partner may use gaslighting to gain power and control over their significant other, in the workplace context, managers may display similar behaviour towards their employees.

In fact, in our experience advising employers, we’re seeing an increase in grievances involving a gaslighting element. So what should you watch out for, and how should you respond to allegations of gaslighting at work?

Examples of gaslighting at work

Grievances relating to gaslighting typically involve a line manager and an employee. In many cases, because gaslighting often entails gendered power dynamics (à la the stage play), the employee is female and the manager is male. Indeed, research by the Trades Union Congress shows that women are more likely to be victims of bullying at work than men.

Let’s say a manager sets an employee a task to do, but once they have completed it, the manager denies ever having had such a discussion and reprimands the employee for wasting their time on it or doing it wrong.

While some might chalk this up to poor management, it may also be a case of deliberate gaslighting in an attempt to demean, sabotage or humiliate the employee, make them doubt their own abilities, or even wear them down to the point of quitting.

For some managers, gaslighting can simply be a power play – a way of gaining validation through ‘being right’. In other cases, it can serve as a way of shifting responsibility and covering up their own incompetence.

In the above scenario, for example, perhaps the manager’s manager questioned the employee’s work, and rather than admit that they had provided poor instructions or made a mistake by setting the employee the task in the first place, the manager deflected blame onto the employee, insisting they must have misunderstood.

In effect, gaslighting is a form of workplace bullying – albeit a more subtle one. Over time, situations like this can leave victims of gaslighting feeling confused and anxious. And as they seek clarity from their manager, the cycle continues, and the manager’s power increases.

The problem is that, by its very nature, gaslighting can be difficult to investigate and prove. Managers who use gaslighting tactics will likely ensure that there is no objective trail of evidence that the employee can point to in order to back up their version of events or their recollection of a conversation, making it one person’s word against another’s.

What’s more, because gaslighting often involves small, isolated acts that might not be witnessed by other colleagues, it can be difficult for HR to spot these occurrences.

Other examples of gaslighting include regularly swapping and changing diary commitments so that meetings are held at short notice. This might result in employees being unable to attend the meeting due to other commitments, and information not being shared (or only shared in part) so that the gaslighted party is never fully in the loop. Tactics such as this are a subtle way of confusing somebody and making them feel as if things are moving at a pace which they are not keeping up with, leading to feelings of stress and inadequacy.  

Gaslighting might also manifest as a manager regularly picking on one particular employee. This might include calling them up unnecessarily when they are off sick, calling them out for minor misdemeanours, and monitoring their breaks stringently while being lenient with others.

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Signs of workplace gaslighting

While gaslighting is covert, there are certain indicators which may suggest managers have a propensity for this sort of manipulation.

  • Do they tend to prefer undocumented, face-to-face conversations instead of communicating with their team via email? This could be intentional so as to prevent an employee from being able to refer back to communications later.
  • Do they drip feed information or deliberately ignore multiple emails that seek to obtain or clarify details? This might indicate that the perpetrator is deliberately trying to withhold information and control output and understanding.
  • Do they regularly sideline complaints or pretend that they are unaware of a matter when in fact it has been flagged many times prior? Conversely, do they regularly refer to complaints from others without any validation or proof of what has been raised?

Dealing with allegations

Grievances involving gaslighting need to be investigated, though this can prove tricky given the possible difficulties in obtaining objective evidence on either side. Again, there’s often a lack of witnesses and email trails to refer back to.

As such, the ‘he said, she said’ nature of these disputes means it falls to investigators to take a view on what they reasonably believe to have happened – on the balance of probabilities – given what they do know.

Once a decision is reached, investigators then need to decide on appropriate recommendations. Possible outcomes could include:

  • Facilitation between the employee and their manager to reset boundaries and restore productive working relationships wherever possible.
  • Moving the employee to another team, in situations where one of the parties refuses to continue to work with the other (and where attempts at facilitation fail).
  • Revising the employee’s job description to clarify their targets, remit and the support they will receive.
  • Performance managing the employee, if the grievance is rejected and it transpires that the manager has in fact made their expectations clear, but the employee hasn’t done what’s required. (In essence, it could be that in raising the grievance, the employee ‘outs themselves’, with the investigation revealing performance issues and failure to follow instructions).
  • Disciplinary action against the manager, if the grievance is upheld. Formal disciplinary action may be warranted if the manager has committed a single, serious act of misconduct or where there are enough examples of gaslighting to establish a pattern of unacceptable behaviour.

The dangers

If left unchecked or not dealt with correctly, grievances involving gaslighting could conceivably escalate into Employment Tribunal claims.

For example, if the employee has a protected characteristic (such as sex, race or disability) and feels as though the manager’s treatment of them was motivated by this characteristic, they may have grounds to bring a claim for discrimination. Arguably the most likely claim would be for sex discrimination, given that gaslighting is often used as a way to manipulate, undermine and control women. Given this risk, grievances should be taken seriously and dealt with sensitively.

Additionally, if employees are constantly undermined, ignored or set up to fail over a prolonged period, it may reach a stage where they feel they have no option but to resign – for some managers, this could even be the end goal. This could give rise to constructive dismissal claims, if the employee has two years’ service or more.

Whether an employer’s conduct or treatment is deemed serious enough to constitute constructive dismissal will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of each case. Unfortunately for employers, employees don’t need to have raised a grievance first, though they should give the employer an opportunity to remedy the situation before bringing a claim.

Claims aside, gaslighting can have a hugely detrimental impact on people’s mental health and self-esteem, contributing to an overall toxic workplace culture. It can cause people to lose confidence and even avoid work altogether, increasing absence rates and impacting productivity.

Over time, gaslighting can become an insidious problem, eroding relationships with managers and impacting others in the team to the point where work suffers and resignations follow. As the saying goes, people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers.

It’s therefore imperative that employers understand the impact that seemingly small incidences can have and take steps to address these behaviours.

How to avoid gaslighting in your workplace

1

Ensure managers are clear about their expectations. It’s good practice to circulate an email following meetings or discussions with employees in which work is set, clearly stating any agreed actions and timeframes. As well as helping employees to deliver what’s required, having written actions to refer back to will prevent managers from moving the goalposts later.

2

Similarly, encourage employees to seek clarification if they are unsure what’s expected of them. Again, a quick email to their manager following a meeting to confirm what they took from the session and what they have understood their actions to be will reduce the potential for misunderstanding and give the employee confidence that they are on the right track (and won’t be gaslit later).

3

Ensure regular check-ins with employees. Sometimes gaslighting issues can often be linked to performance management issues and fuelled by a lack of communication, making regular 1-to-1s important. This will help to ensure a common understanding of what the job role entails to ensure both parties are on the same page.

4

Develop the right behaviours and culture. This might mean providing leadership training for managers, making it second nature to develop policies around people management and development, and regularly engaging in training and e-Learning which reinforces best practice approaches.

5

Stand up to the unwanted behaviour. Call it out, challenge it, and role model the right behaviours. Perhaps encourage the use of engagement surveys to identify perpetrators subtly – if one employee is impacted, it’s likely that there will be others in the same boat.

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