Culture   //   December 2, 2022  ■  4 min read

‘Covert bullying’: How to tell if you have been gaslighted at work

America’s oldest dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster chose “gaslighting” as its word of the year earlier this week. Searches on its website for the word spiked by 1,740% in 2022. We can probably assume that some of those searches came from people who were questioning if they were being gaslit in the workplace. 

“It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year,” Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski told the Associated Press.

Merriam-Webster’s top definition for gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that “causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

It’s also a top workplace bullying tactic. 

“There is bullying where people yell and stomp their feet, but there is also covert bullying, which is when someone quietly plots, gaslights and makes up lies to get their way,” said Ludmila Praslova, psychology professor who researches workplace bullying. 

Jami Shanes, licensed therapist at LifeStance Health, says that gaslighting in the workplace is a form of emotional abuse that can occur between co-workers, both on the same level or from their bosses.

However, one of the top questions when it comes to gaslighting is if it’s actually happening or not. Here are top things to consider when it comes to gaslighting in the workplace:

It can feel like your feelings are minimized 

People might use phrases like “too sensitive” or “crazy” or that “their memory must be wrong,” said Shanes. It’s usually when someone’s recollection of events is questioned, despite being certain you remember it a different way.

“A person who is gaslighting another person may also try to change the topic,” said Shanes.

On top of this, the gaslighter might deny past events or retell events in a different way. Workplace examples include a boss who calls you hypersensitive for reporting a coworker that made inappropriate reports or if someone asks you to do something one way and then later tells you that you remembered the task wrong. It could also be if the gaslighter says they never got a presentation that you are sure you turned in on time. Or, that it’s OK to skip a meeting when it is not okay and then you later are in trouble for it. Someone could also say something that they mean and then later say that they were just joking.

It’s a repeated behavior

Praslova said it’s important that people understand exactly what gaslighting is.

“If someone is disagreeing or challenging a perspective, that’s not gaslighting,” said Praslova. “Sometimes people like to use psychological words where they don’t belong.”

According to her, one of the key differences is that it is a repeated, long-term intentional behavior and a pattern that aims to alter someone’s reality and makes them feel like they’re not making any sense. 

“When you have a pattern, not a one-time deal, that’s gaslighting,” said Praslova. 

It might be hard to avoid at times

If the person gaslighting you is a boss or a co-worker that you frequently interact with, there isn’t a quick action to take. 

“Individuals who gaslight often have some bigger struggles going on such as narcissistic personality disorder,” said Shanes. “In a place of work, you may have to end a conversation.”

She recommends that if the pattern continues and it is impacting your work day, it is probably worth speaking with an HR representative.

Find an ally to validate you

“People who are targets of gaslighting might have a hard time making sense of things, because by definition, gaslighting messes with your perception of reality and makes you doubt yourself,” said Praslova. “They might wonder if everyone sees the problem.”

That’s why an ally or third-party is so important in calling out this behavior and helping the person being gaslit understand the reality of a situation. 

“You absolutely need someone else to say they see it your way,” said Praslova. If it’s not a colleague, it could be a mental health professional who can help validate the person experiencing the gaslighting.

Consider journaling

One of the best ways to keep track of patterns is to write them down, said Praslova. 

“Write down the facts and see if the facts are checking what you think is happening or what other people are interpreting for you,” said Praslova. “Look at objective reality. It’s a good mental health check-in. If you journal, you can pick up patterns faster than you would otherwise.”

Additionally, documenting everything, including interactions, conversations, assignments and email exchanges, could help someone who is being gaslit protect themselves. This documentation can later be brought to HR if needed. If things are left with no recourse, it could push top performers out the door to find a different workplace with a better culture.

“If the system is set to allow a lot of gaslighting, or psychological manipulation, people are going to look for a new job,” said Praslova.