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Is Gaslighting Bullying in the Workplace?

The word gaslighting has been revived lately in social media.  Its rise could arguably be attributed to the rise of Donald Trump because gaslighting describes a type of behavior that he has become synonymous with.  Gaslighting is designed to manipulate a person’s perception.  Wikipedia[1] defines gaslighting as a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.  So would gaslighting constitute bullying in the workplace?

Bullying at work, as defined by the Fair Work Act 2009, occurs when:

  • a person or a group of people behaves unreasonably and repeatedly towards a worker or a group of workers while at work, and
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.

Some real-life examples of someone describing their manager who they allege was gaslighting her in the workplace, reported by include:

It’s not really your fault everything is such a mess. I’m sure you tried your best — you just don’t have it in you to do the job properly — not to the standard that is expected.”

I’ve spoken to everyone in the team and every last one of them indicated the problem is you.

I’m planning a restructure and I’ll be honest, I just can’t see a role for you in the new structure.”

“I was wondering if you were okay!” she exclaimed. “You were supposed to call me at 1.30pm and I’ve been sitting here waiting for 30 minutes!”  However, no meeting had been scheduled.

You can hear that the words that the Manager uses undermine the employee or you could hear another interpretation.  Crucially, gaslighting allows for the person being gaslighted to assume that they are imagining things, and that there is no harmful intent on the part of the gaslighter.  Gaslighting exists in the world of perception so it can be really difficult for people to prove that it is even occurring. When we are conducting workplace investigations we often have to unpack these types of conversations.  For example the Manager would argue, ‘I did say something like that but I was definitely complimentary, I said that she tried her best, and the fact is that her performance is not up to standard, so there is nothing malicious in that’.

Employees refer to having agreements with other team members in nearly every workplace mediation and workplace investigation that we do.  People will say ‘it’s not just me, … agrees with me as well’.  Most people will speak to their co-workers about issues they are having.  And, most employees choose other employees who agree with them to speak to.  I can promise you this though, there are many times that we will conduct a workplace interview with those very people, and they will say words to the effect of ‘I just agree because I don’t want to get involved’ and then give their true opinion.

Because the complaint is based on perception it means that the communication can be interpreted in multiple ways by a third party.  A third party being the person complained to such as Human Resources staff, a Supervisor or Manager.

In addition, as a workplace investigator, this type of behaviour, gaslighting, is commonly described as inextricably linked to ‘personality’.  For example, people use words like ‘that is just what she is like’.  Meaning, there is no awareness or malicious intent, that is just how the person conducts themselves.  That’s how they communicate.  That is, she is not intentionally engaging in a malicious campaign or strategy of gaslighting, that’s just her style.

The definition of bullying as outlined above doesn’t infer any intentions.  So, you might not know that you are bullying or gaslighting.  However, if a reasonable person considers that your behaviour is unreasonable and that it creates a risk to your health and safety, then the behaviour could constitute bullying.

Conversely on the scale of bullying, and there is a scale, is there any responsibility on the person complaining to have some resilience and skills to deal with low-level gaslighting?  We at Emverio Workplace Solutions are seeing more and more complaints where the person complaining has not even brought the behaviour that they are complaining about to the attention of the person to fix it.   When is it appropriate to push back on complainants and to have some skills at dealing with challenging behaviours?  That topic I’ll leave for another blog (watch this space).

What would be the consequences of gaslighting someone in the workplace?  Well, it could constitute bullying, so if it could be proved (using the civil standard of proof being the balance of probabilities),and depending on the seriousness of the behaviour,  it could attract disciplinary action (including termination) as it has the components required by the definition of bullying.