HR Professionals: How to Recognize and Respond to Gaslighters


As an HR professional, how would you conceptualize these situations? How would you address them? Keep reading to explore the complexities of workplace gaslighting and how to effectively intervene.

Introduction – Can You Recognize the Gaslighting Tactics?

Jane, a young and ambitious marketing coordinator, recently began feeling disoriented at her job. Her supervisor, Mark, had been consistently critical of her work, often in public settings. Despite a positive, previous work experience with strong performance reviews, Jane found herself now questioning her abilities and even her recollections of meetings and tasks. Despite her efforts and achievements, she felt increasingly insecure and doubted her own perceptions. She had difficulty sleeping and played exchanges with Mark over and over again in her mind, trying to understand what happened and if she could be mistaken.

Emily, a skilled graphic designer, joined a mid-sized advertising firm with enthusiasm. Initially, her supervisor, Thomas, appeared supportive, often praising her innovative designs and hard work. However, over time, Thomas’s demeanor changed subtly. He began with minor critiques, questioning Emily’s choices in a way that contradicted his previous instructions, leaving her confused. As time passed, Thomas’s behavior grew more undermining. In team meetings, he publicly questioned Emily’s competence and spread doubts about her abilities to other team members, isolating her. Emily’s confidence eroded, and she began to second-guess her decisions and question her own memory and perceptions.

Definition and Explanation of Gaslighting:

Workplace gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where individuals, often those in positions of power, make others (the victim of gaslighting) question their own reality, memory, or perceptions. This insidious behavior undermines the victim’s self-esteem and mental well-being, creating a toxic work environment. The origins of the term “gaslighting” come from the 1938 play “Gas Light,” where a husband manipulates his wife into questioning her sanity by dimming the gas lights and denying it’s happening.

How to Recognize Workplace Gaslighting:

Have you had an employee or employees report, or have you observed, that a supervisor engages in the following behaviors:

  1. Persistent Negative Comments: Continual, unjustified negative remarks about the employee’s performance, often lacking concrete evidence.
  2. Public Belittlement: Humiliating or degrading comments made in front of others.
  3. Spreading False Gossip: Circulating untrue rumors to undermine someone’s reputation.
  4. Questioning Reality: Causing individuals to doubt their recollections or perceptions.
  5. Belittling Emotions and Efforts: Trivializing someone’s feelings, achievements, or contributions.
  6. Exclusion: Intentionally leaving someone out of meetings or professional activities relevant to their job​​.
  7. Engaging in opaque communication: Altering statements to shift blame, selectively applying policies, and changing goals or job descriptions without justification.

In a workplace setting, these behaviors contribute to a toxic environment that can have severe repercussions on employee well-being and job performance. It’s crucial for HR professionals to be aware of these signs and take appropriate measures to address them, ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all employees.

Other Behaviors from Gaslighters:

While gaslighting is generally associated with a person in power manipulating a subordinate, this is not always the case. Employees may gaslight their peers or a subordinate may gaslight a boss.

  • Sexist and Racist Comments Followed by Denial

Gaslighters may make discriminatory remarks based on gender, race, or ethnicity, which are inherently offensive and harmful. When confronted about these comments, they often deny having made them or claim they were misunderstood or joking. This behavior not only inflicts emotional harm but also creates an environment of confusion and self-doubt among victims, who may begin to question their own understanding of the situation or their ability to accurately interpret interactions.

  • Lashing Out When Challenged

When their behavior or statements are questioned, gaslighters might react aggressively or defensively. They may dismiss or invalidate the emotions of the person challenging them, and deflect responsibility for their actions. This lashing out serves to intimidate and silence the victim, further entrenching the power imbalance. It can lead to a culture of fear where employees are hesitant to speak up or challenge inappropriate behavior, thus perpetuating the cycle of gaslighting.

  • Positive Reinforcement to Confuse

A particularly insidious tactic employed by gaslighters is the use of occasional compliments or positive reinforcement. This intermittent positivity serves to confuse the victim, making it harder for them to reconcile the gaslighter’s harmful behavior with these moments of apparent kindness or approval. It creates a psychological dependency, as the victim craves these positive interactions amidst the ongoing negative treatment. This tactic can lead victims to doubt their own perceptions of the gaslighter’s behavior and to question whether the treatment they receive is actually as harmful as they perceive it to be.

More than One Victim or a Pattern of Gaslighting Behavior:

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and psychological control, and individuals who engage in this behavior in the workplace often do so as a pattern, rather than targeting a single individual. There are several reasons why a gaslighter might victimize multiple people in the workplace simultaneously or over time:

  1. Power and Control: Gaslighters often seek to exert power and control over others. By manipulating multiple individuals, they reinforce their sense of superiority and control within their environment.
  2. Maintaining a Facade: Gaslighters may target multiple people to maintain a façade of normalcy or to appear competent and in control. By manipulating the perceptions of several people, they can create a narrative that suits their interests and deflects from their abusive behavior.
  3. Testing Boundaries: Gaslighters may test different people’s boundaries to see how much control they can exert. They might escalate their tactics with those who are more susceptible to manipulation.
  4. Diverse Gratification: Different victims may provide different forms of gratification or utility to the gaslighter. For example, one person might offer professional benefits, while another might provide emotional or psychological satisfaction.
  5. Spreading Influence: By manipulating multiple people, gaslighters can spread their influence more broadly within an organization or social circle, creating a network of relationships that serve their interests.
  6. Diversion and Misdirection: Having multiple victims can create confusion and misdirection, making it more difficult for others to recognize and address the gaslighting behavior.

It’s important for organizations and individuals to be aware of these patterns. When multiple people report similar experiences of manipulation, confusion, or psychological distress related to the same individual, it may indicate a pattern of gaslighting behavior. In such cases, a thorough and sensitive investigation by HR or appropriate authorities is crucial to address the issue effectively and protect the well-being of all involved.

Guidance for HR Professionals on Addressing Workplace Gaslighting:

Understanding the Role of HR in Gaslighting Situations:

HR professionals play a critical role in identifying, addressing, and preventing workplace gaslighting. It’s essential to create an environment where employees feel safe to report such issues and trust that their concerns will be handled with sensitivity and confidentiality.

Effects of Gaslighting:

Gaslighting in the workplace can lead to severe psychological distress. Victims may experience decreased self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The constant self-doubt and confusion caused by gaslighting often impact an individual’s performance and personal life, leading to a sense of powerlessness and isolation.

Questions to Ask When Investigating Gaslighting Claims:

  1. Gather Specific Instances: Ask the employee to provide details about specific incidents where they felt gaslighted.
  2. Understand the Impact: Inquire how these experiences have affected their work performance and well-being.
  3. Identify Witnesses or Collaborators: Check if there are any coworkers who have observed these incidents or experienced similar treatment.
  4. Assess the Frequency and Severity: Determine how often and how severely the alleged gaslighting occurs.

Supporting the Employee:

  1. Provide a Safe Space: Ensure the employee feels comfortable and safe discussing their concerns without fear of retaliation.
  2. Validate Their Feelings: Acknowledge the seriousness of their concerns and the impact of the reported behavior on their mental health.
  3. Offer Resources: Provide access to counseling services or employee assistance programs if available.
  4. Keep Them Informed: Update them regularly about the progress of the investigation and any actions taken.

Responding to a Report of Gaslighting:

  1. Conduct a Thorough Investigation: Gather all relevant information and speak to all parties involved, including potential witnesses.
  2. Maintain Neutrality: Approach the investigation objectively, without preconceived notions about either party.
  3. Document Everything: Keep detailed records of the investigation, including interviews, findings, and decisions.
  4. Implement Appropriate Actions: Based on the investigation’s outcome, take necessary actions, which could range from mediation to disciplinary measures.

Handling Gaslighting Related to Protected Class Membership:

  1. Understand the Legal Implications: Be aware of laws and regulations concerning discrimination and harassment, especially when gaslighting involves a protected class.
  2. Provide Specialized Training: Ensure all employees, especially managers and supervisors, receive training on diversity, inclusion, and sensitivity to protected class issues.
  3. Implement Strong Policies: Enforce clear policies against discrimination and harassment, and ensure they are communicated to all employees.
  4. Take Immediate Action: If gaslighting is found to be related to a person’s membership in a protected class, take swift and decisive action to address the issue and prevent recurrence. This might involve involving legal counsel, retraining, or more severe disciplinary measures.

Conclusion to Workplace Gaslighting and HR Involvement:

Workplace gaslighting is a complex and challenging issue that requires careful attention and action from HR professionals. Through the case studies of Jane and Emily, we have seen the subtle yet profound impact gaslighting can have on individuals’ confidence, well-being, and job performance. By recognizing the signs of gaslighting, including persistent negative comments, public belittlement, spreading false gossip, questioning reality, belittling emotions and efforts, and exclusion, HR can take proactive steps to investigate and address these concerns.

The role of HR in supporting affected employees and conducting thorough, neutral investigations cannot be overstated. Providing a safe space for employees to express their concerns, validating their feelings, offering resources like counseling services, and keeping them informed are key to ensuring their well-being. Additionally, responding to reports with a comprehensive investigation, maintaining neutrality, documenting all findings, and implementing appropriate actions are essential in resolving such cases.

This blog post seeks to empower HR professionals with the knowledge and tools to identify, understand, and effectively tackle workplace gaslighting. By doing so, they can create a healthier, more respectful, and supportive work environment for all employees. Remember, addressing gaslighting is not just about individual cases but about fostering a culture of respect and psychological safety within the organization.

HR professionals must approach reports of workplace gaslighting with seriousness, empathy, and a commitment to fairness. By asking the right questions, supporting affected employees, conducting thorough investigations, and responding appropriately, especially in cases involving protected classes, HR can help maintain a respectful, inclusive, and psychologically safe workplace.

Additional Resources: