Gaslighting in the workplace

Why you are worth so much more

I am Elyse Hocking
5 min readJul 7, 2021
Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

By now most people have heard of the terms ‘narcissistic personalities’ as well as ‘gaslighting’ and it’s effect within relationships, we’ve come to understand the red flags to look out for, how to protect ourselves against it but no-one discusses these negative character traits and their detriment within the workforce.

You see the workforce is a whole other ball game, with policies and regulations and hierarchy — so much so, you would never think to protect yourself from narcissists and gas lighters and that therein lies the hidden dangers of workplace abuse.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a classic form of emotional abuse that’s seen in abusive romantic relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them (2017)

Literally gas lighters will psychologically manipulate people to gain or maintain control, in this situation, employees or team members are manipulated into believing that they are to blame, or that a situation isn’t how they perceived it to be — this leaves the employee debating their own reality to the point where they truly do not know what was genuinely imagined and what was reality, therefore leaving the abuser holding the power.

Its a pointless and dangerous character trait.

The manipulator looks to hold the cards and may genuinely not believe they have done anything wrong, after all many tell so many mistruths that they start to believe the lies that they told; ultimately it’s a vicious circle as they cannot break out of this mentality as it offers them psychological rewards and is addictive.

Let’s look at some signs from a manager versus employee stand point that would highlight abuse.

  1. Changes in personality — one day the manager is very caring, polite and positive; the next they are sharp, abrupt and may pick small faults in what the employee does even if the manager instructed the employee to do that work in that way. This leaves the employee anxious as they will not know which personality they are coming into each morning and, they won’t know if they truly are the trigger because they are incapable of following instructions.
  2. Passive-aggressive attitudes — the manager may commend the employee on completing a task, only to highlight negativities in a ‘’constructive’’ manner. Typically the constructive feedback isn’t relevant and is not actually constructive but may me used just to ensure the manager retains the power within the working relationship.
  3. Negative gossip — the manager may make comments about the employee to others, or may have meetings with other managers in a way that the employee will find out or overhear.
  4. Persistent negative commentary — one-to-one meetings, HR meetings, email threads or other communicative sessions may result in the manager sandwiching positive commentary with a multitude of negative aspects ensuring that any praise the employee feels they are getting is negated with the negative criticism. This will leave them unsure of their capability and add to any anxiety they may already feel.
  5. Sarcasm and humour — the manager many use sarcasm and ‘I’m just joking’ as a mentality to add further anxiety and upset. Statements such as ‘Oh I’m sure you can do that task, it’s an easy one’ or ‘you’re so popular with the opposite sex’ or ‘did you sleep OK, you look tired’ or ‘you have such an easy job’ are typically found in the abusive workplace.
  6. Withholding — some managers may withhold to control their employees, this is absolutely not acceptable. Some may withhold pay rises, bonuses, permanent contracts or new projects just to keep the employee under control. The mentality here is, you will do as I say without judgement or you won’t get x, y or z.
  7. Pity party for one — once the abusive manager feels too hard pressed, they will guilt trip anyone and everyone. They’ve been struggling or, the employee was the one that was being nasty, or no one understands them — basically any excuse for pity and attention, the fake poor me attitude is never cute and is absolutely abusive.

There are an abundance of reasons why someone (a manager for example) would treat their employees in this way but the main reasons are that they ultimately want to prove a point and control may be something that they thrive on outside of the workplace.

Many female managers are known to gaslight their employees, this may be due to managing the home life versus workplace, body image or eating disorders, untreated mental health conditions or unresolved historical issues such as family abuse, controlling family members or having too many walls up for fear of being hurt first.

None of it is an acceptable excuse to treat anyone under your care this way.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do you feel you work to the best of your ability given your training or instruction, yet are continually reprimanded for doing it wrong, or not listening or not trying hard enough?
  2. Do you feel embarrassed by some of the comments your manager gives which leaves you wondering if you are just being ‘sensitive’ or over thinking it?
  3. Do you get anxiety going into work, knowing you will see that person for no specific reason?
  4. Do you try to shy away from speaking to that person for fear of them criticising you?
  5. Are you scared to speak up, comment or go to HR in case you are sacked, not given a contract, pay rise or project — or worked out of the company?

If you answered yes to the questions above it’s a likely sign you are being gaslighted. Please speak to your human resource department or workers union, especially if you know that you have tried to fulfil your role without harming anyone.

If this fails to change the behaviours the next step would be too look for a new position.

Yes, it’s hugely unfair that you would need to consider that, but breaking free from abuse in any capacity usually means change. While you go through the change which will see you grow, the abuser will not be going through any form of growth and can only sink further into what may be unemployment.

Always put yourself and your family first.

I’ll leave you with this quote from my dad who was an utterly amazing and insightful gentleman:

‘Would you let your partner [or loved one] speak to you or treat you in the same way? If the answer is no, then you simply do not accept it from anyone else’



I am Elyse Hocking

Blogger | Scottish life and personal opinion *All views my own* You can also find me at: