Gaslighting in the Workplace: How to Help Your Clients

Gaslighting in the workplace, depicted by young woman being laughed at by work colleagues

As career development practitioners, we’re aware of various forms of bullying and manipulation that can occur at work. But what happens when the manipulation is not that obvious and leads your client to question their abilities, and even their mental health? You may have heard or read about the phenomenon known as “gaslighting.” According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is defined as a subtle form of manipulation and psychological control. The term actually originated from a 1938 play called “Gas Light” in which an abusive spouse psychologically torments his wife by causing their home’s gaslights to flicker and dim at unexpected times. Just as the wife eventually finds someone to help her, we can support our clients who are faced with gaslighting in the workplace.

What Occurs During Gaslighting?

  1. Victims of gaslighting are purposely given false information that leads them to question their truths, even about themselves.
  2. They may doubt their memories, perceptions, and sanity.
  3. A gaslighter’s tactics can become more complex over time, making it even more challenging for the victim to understand the truth.

Gaslighting Experiences

I have heard stories from clients about subtle tricks and games that co-workers play. These tactics increase stress and reduce productivity and harmony, while negatively impacting the client’s mental health.

Suppose your client raves about a successful project they’re in charge of; however, their work colleague – a member of the project team – is taking all the credit. At the same time, the colleague is trying to convince your client that they did all the work and the success is really attributed to them. How would you help?

Here’s another example: your client asserts their views at work. A colleague is paying attention to – and criticizing – how they express their argument rather than focusing on what they are saying – it’s called “tone policing.”  Sound familiar?

Gaslighting Statistics: A Serious Workplace Issue

Can you imagine a workplace culture where people take pride in gaslighting each other? Workplace bullying has been on the rise – 37% of Canadian workers report having experienced it. However, it is highly likely that occurrences of gaslighting – a form of bullying – are under-reported. In reality, it probably happens more than people realize, both in the workplace and in personal and social media circles.

In the UK, a poll of 3033 workers conducted by MHR, a human resources software and services provider, showed that 58% of workers between 18 and 54 years of age report having encountered gaslighting at work!

How to Recognize Signs of Gaslighting

According to Medical News Today, gaslighting causes long-term effects, including “trauma, anxiety, and depression;” the ingredients for a toxic culture. The irony is that “gaslighters” may seem “nice” on the surface, yet underneath they are manipulative and try to control others to achieve their goals at others’ expense.

Here are 17 questions to ask to determine if your client is being “gaslighted” at work:

  1. Has your client been told they are being overly sensitive?
  2. Does your client feel intimidated and find themselves constantly apologizing?
  3. Is your client being told they are overreacting?
  4. Has your client found themselves being suddenly indecisive, believing that their opinions, expertise, and decisions are not important?
  5. Has your client started questioning their psychological safety or mental health?
  6. Has your client stopped trusting their instincts?
  7. Is your client suffering from low self-esteem?
  8. Does your client second-guess themselves? This often occurs where there is emotional abuse and manipulation that leads the other person to question their own self-worth and value.
  9. Has your client become a “people pleaser?”
  10. Is your client finding themselves lying to avoid reactions by others or escape tense situations?
  11. Is your client being called “aggressive” or “bossy” at work?
  12. Is your client pretending to forget situations or incidents to keep the peace?
  13. Is your client accused of nagging?
  14. Are your client’s words, feelings, or interests being ignored or minimized?
  15. Is your client being faced with certain “conditions” at work that are unreasonable or unacceptable?
  16. Is your client being made to feel guilty, ashamed, or “small?”
  17. Is your client making excuses for a toxic boss? Doing so signals to the boss that their behaviour is being tolerated and that they can repeat the behaviour without consequences.

It’s important to note that not all these signs may apply to your client. The signs of gaslighting can be subtle and it’s not always easy to detect.

Ask your client to look for behaviour patterns over time and in different settings. If some or most of these behaviours appear often, then it is time to address the type of environment your client is working in. Then, discuss and explore effective strategies for moving forward in the best interest of the client.

Strategies to Address Gaslighting

Here are 12 helpful strategies we can use to support and empower our clients facing gaslighting at work:

  1. Listen to your client’s situation without judgment.
  2. Be empathetic and sensitive to your client’s needs.
  3. Ask relevant and thoughtful questions such as: How is your client impacted? How do they feel? What does the next step look like for them to feel safe again?
  4. Raise awareness. Help your client to understand and accept the situation, and claim their power to exercising their assertiveness and human rights.
  5. Support your client in addressing their limited beliefs with powerful exercises. Help your client understand that they have rights to respect and fair treatment without harassment or belittlement.
  6. Brainstorm empowering possibilities and solutions. What can your client do to remedy the situation and take back control?
  7. Encourage mindfulness. Help your client heal and balance stress levels.
  8. Be supportive, kind, and genuine.
  9. Remind your client about their value and help them leverage their strengths.
  10. Encourage your client to keep a journal and record their feelings and any critical events.
  11. Motivate your client in continuing to respect themselves, honour their worth, and be assertive.
  12. Help your client to uncover a long-term solution. This strategy may involve avoiding or limiting all contact with the gaslighter and setting boundaries. It may even involve leaving a toxic workplace!

Gaslighting hurts everyone by violating human respect, self-esteem, relationships, and laws.

Let’s do our part to stop this malicious behaviour whether it is happening in our lives, in our clients’ lives, or on social media. Kindness and compassion go a long way to building a stronger community. Below you will find more helpful information and mental health support resources that you can provide clients.

Mental health wellness is an essential part of career development. A holistic approach to wellness ensures success. As career professionals, we can also refer clients to professionals specializing in mental health counselling, if necessary.

Enroll in the transformative Work-Life Coaching Strategist course and enhance your work-life coaching skills by fall. Commit to earning your certification.

Additional Resources:

What is Gaslighting?

How to Deal With Gaslighting – 5 Ways to Respond to a Gaslighter

Gaslighting at Work: What It Is and How to Handle It

Gaslighting at Work: How to Tell If You’re Experiencing It and What to Do

Mental Health Wellness: Essential to Success in Career Development

Find Mental Health Support

Provincial Mental Health Supports

Lori Jazvac is a passionate, award-winning Master Certified Résumé Strategist and Certified Employment Strategist through Career Professionals of Canada. As a multi-certified Master Résumé Writer and Certified Career Transition Coach, she specializes in helping clients navigate challenging career transitions. In 2013, an empowering vision inspired Lori to launch Creative Horizons Communications, a holistic career services firm where she virtually supports jobseekers around the globe to embrace their next career milestone. In her spare time, Lori enjoys dance, blogging, watching comedies and reality shows, yoga, and taking long walks in nature.

Photo by andreypopov on 123RF

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I believe it would be benefit resume writers as well if we learn how to handle this properly with our clients. I’ve been questioned by clients if I think I’m would be capable of writing their resume. This, after mentioning that I have prepared resumes for 28 years. There are others who email every few weeks and say they will order, or are sending the money ‘today’ or this evening, and never send it. I follow up and say I’ve been looking out for the payment, and they either don’t answer by phone/email, or say they found someone else or changed their mind about ordering a resume at this time. One has to have a very high level of tolerance as a professional resume writer.

Hi Karen, thanks for your insights.

Your post sparked an idea for a future tele-networking session or even a blog post. I sincerely empathize with you and can relate to this scenario, like many resume writers and career pros. I have learned that there is always room for improvement in our branding, policies, and processes.

On the other hand, this scenario may not be necessarily reflective of “gaslighting”, but might be related to the competitive market/industry, the rise in new entrants, and personal and/or professional client-related factors that we may not be fully aware of. (i.e. Johari window principle). Perhaps the “Blue Ocean” strategy may prove to be an interesting and relevant concept that could be applied here to drive growth and innovation.

You are a talented resume writer and experienced career professional. Keep driving your purpose 🙂