How to Deal With Gaslighting From Your Boss
Welcome to CB’s work-advice column, Ask Avery, featuring Avery Francis, founder of workplace design consultancy Bloom. Each month, Francis will answer reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and she’ll offer her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask Avery.”
I used to work in an organization as the director of talent. In that role, I grew the employee base and advised senior leaders on hiring. I was dedicated to increasing gender diversity on our team.
But about a year into my role—and after a well-deserved promotion—I was sexually assaulted at work. Prior to the assault, I had expressed concerns about my assailant’s behaviors to a member of the leadership team, but my concerns were ignored. After I told management about my assault, my assailant was terminated, though I no longer felt safe at the company, so I quit. I didn’t want to work for a company that had once dismissed my experiences.
The workplace assault was followed by gaslighting. Once I left the company, my contributions to the organization were removed from its website. All the acknowledgements of the role I played in shaping the business vanished. It was like I was being erased.
In short, I was gaslighted into thinking my negative experiences weren’t that bad and that my positive contributions weren’t actually mine. Unfortunately, I’m not alone. Nearly 60 per cent of workers say they’ve experienced gaslighting at work, according to a poll by U.K. software company MHR.
I’ve shared my story of gaslighting at work and now I’m motivated to share what you can do if someone is gaslighting you—especially if that person holds more power and privilege than you do. Here’s what I’ve learned about gaslighting and how to deal with it when it comes from your boss.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting refers to a specific type of manipulation where someone tries to get someone else to question their own reality, memory or perceptions. The term stems from a 1938 play called Gaslight about a man who manipulates his wife into thinking she is losing her grip on reality so he can steal her inheritance.
Gaslighting is insidious, constant and done with malice, and often goes beyond someone saying they don’t believe you or accusing you of lying. It’s when people tell you that things you did or witnessed didn’t happen because a different telling of events benefits the gaslighter. It’s made worse when there’s a power gap between parties—something that is inherent in the employer-employee relationship. Gaslighting can often show up in a narcissistic boss.
In the workplace, a few examples of gaslighting include: a boss taking credit for your work yet saying you need to try harder; a manager saying you aren’t being a team player despite you volunteering for every team task and helping co-workers; or senior leadership suggesting you are lying when you bring up concerns that your boss is bullying you, all because senior leadership likes your boss. Simply put, gaslighting is when someone manipulates you over time and makes you question yourself, your actions and the things you witnessed—all for their own gain.
How to deal with gaslighting at work
Dealing with gaslighting from anyone is challenging, but when it’s coming from your boss it can be even more difficult because there’s an inherent power imbalance. Plus, if you like your work or want to stay at your job, chances are you don’t want to do anything to put yourself in a precarious situation. That’s why it’s key to look out for yourself. If you think you’re being gaslighted at work by your boss, here’s what you can do.
Validate the experience
Explain the facts of the situation to a trusted friend and ask for their honest opinion about whether it’s gaslighting or something else, like incompetence or jealousy. Gaslighting will make you question everything and make you feel confused, so a neutral third party can provide a great perspective.
Put everything in writing
A gaslighter’s most powerful weapon is plausibility. It’s plausible you misunderstood them, right? It’s plausible you didn’t come up with that idea, right? Putting things in writing makes things concrete—and having witnesses also helps. For example, if you’re sending an email recapping details after a meeting you had with your boss, is there a co-worker from that meeting you can copy on that message? Not only will this help you deal with the gaslighting itself because you’ll have documentation of your conversations—witnessed by another person—it also creates a paper trail should you need to report your boss to HR.
Set boundaries at work
Focus on delivering on your job description, but otherwise set boundaries that give you space from your boss (for example, not responding to emails during certain time periods to spend time with family). Also try to get your gaslighting boss to communicate with you as clearly as possible, pushing back against their manipulative tactics. If your boss says you’re not contributing to a project enough, ask them for specific examples. By setting boundaries around work, you can protect your mental health while you figure out what to do next.
Figure out your next step
Ultimately, you can’t change a gaslighter. That thought alone should help validate your experience and make you realize it’s not about you, it’s them. But when you work for a toxic boss, at some point you’ll have to figure out what to do next. That might mean confronting your boss, reporting them to HR or quitting your job—but it’s up to you based on what feels right for your career and mental health.
If you decide to address the situation directly with your boss, which may be your main option if your workplace doesn’t have an HR department, be prepared for them to manipulate you or deny your experience. Come armed with clear examples of what they’ve said and what you need for them. For example, if you need clarification from mixed messaging, then cite times you received unclear feedback (be as specific as possible and include dates if you can) and make a request for all feedback to be done via email.
If you report your boss to HR, bring all your documentation. Know that even though you’re working for a toxic leader, there’s a good chance that your boss has also manipulated others in the organization and likely shows senior leadership a different side of their personality. If your complaint doesn’t get the results you’d like, it may be time to look for other opportunities within the organization or at a new one. Because at the end of the day, you deserve to feel affirmed and validated in your experiences at work.