By definition, gaslighting is difficult to uncover. So what should HR do?
Earlier in the year, HRM wrote an article about gaslighting in the workplace. This article outlined what workplace gaslighting was and shared some advice for HR practitioners on how to manage it. This time around, we’ve got a practical guide on how you can identity if someone in your team is a gaslighter.
The purpose of gaslighting is to “make someone question their reality, their sanity and their mental well-being”, says Dr Stephanie Sarkis, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free. “Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse, also known as coercive control.”
Widely recognised in romantic relationships, gaslighting also happens in the workplace. In fact, in a March 2019 poll of 3,033 people aged 18 to 54, conducted by UK-based firm MHR, 58 per cent of workers said they’d experienced it.
If you think you sniff a gaslighter, how can you be sure you’re right?
“Gaslighting is a colloquial term, rather than a clinical condition. It’s an aspect or facet of bullying, which is a more global term. It’s also a technique that a narcissist uses,” says Dr Amanda Ferguson, a Sydney-based registered organisational psychologist.
Gaslighting is not something you should ‘diagnose’. It’s a behaviour, not a condition. But how do you identify someone who is doing it? It’s tricky, because some behaviours are less obvious than others.
“A gaslighter may sabotage an employee or co-worker’s work,” says Sarkis. “They may spread rumours about that person’s stability. They may tell an employee or co-worker that what they saw and heard never happened. They may hide their belongings, then accuse them of being irresponsible.”
The purpose is to undermine the target’s sense of security and reality. One of the most telltale behaviours is ‘splitting’. This involves idealising and then devaluing the victim.
“The gaslighter will put an employee or co-worker up on a pedestal – treating them well, including lavishing them with praise. Then, the gaslighter will devalue that same person – treating them terribly and as if they can do no right,” says Sarkis.
Sometimes the trigger is the victim’s attempt to set a healthy boundary. Typically, a gaslighter doesn’t like hearing the word ‘no’. In fact, they often see it as a personal affront.
Identifying a target
In addition to identifying the behaviours of the gaslighter, it’s telling to look at the victim.
“They’re frustrated,” says Ferguson. “They’re confused; they’re upset. Eventually they might feel someone’s doing a number on them, but that’s only when they’re becoming conscious of what’s happening.”
Take this scenario based on a real case. A boss invites a female employee to take part in a big project, heaping on praise such as, “This is a really important job and you’re the best person for it.” The employee feels valued, inspired and determined to do her best. She works hard.
Then, just as she’s about to finish, the boss gives the project’s completion to a junior staff member, who receives all the credit. When the employee complains to her boss, he responds with platitudes such as “Don’t be like that” and “You’re a part of a team.”
It should be noted that gaslighting is never about a particular task.
“It boils down to power. The bully is trying to assert power over someone and might want this power for all kinds of reasons – to save a job, to appear high-functioning, to deal with high levels of pressure. Even though it might look like role power, it’s always interpersonal power,” says Ferguson.
If an employee says someone is gaslighting them, how can you be sure it’s true? How should you respond?
Aryanne Oade, a UK-based chartered psychologist, recommends observing the staff member before and after an encounter with the alleged gaslighter, and look for signs and symptoms of bullying. According to the Australian Psychological Society website, these range from “mild annoyance through to severe psychological, social and economic trauma”.
Sarkis recommends an affected employee follow the organisation’s grievance procedure, consider consulting an attorney and keep documentation, such as dates, times and direct quotations. It’s a good idea to have a witness present when the gaslighter arranges a meeting alone. In some cases, gaslighting, like other forms of bullying, can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-confidence, panic attacks, fatigue, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and/or suicide ideation.
“In many cases, an employee will find employment elsewhere,” says Sarkis. “It may not seem fair, but the price a person pays emotionally, and even physically, is not worth the stress.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of HRM Magazine.