How to tackle gaslighting grievances in the workplace

Hannah Copeland highlights the steps HR should take when such allegations arise, and how to tell if an employee is being gaslit

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse of power that focuses on creating self-doubt. In the workplace gaslighting can lead to manipulative workplace practices. The abuser will lie and create false scenarios to make employees believe they are imagining things and feel non-credible.

Gaslighting at work can cause the victim to develop trust issues within their workplace and may develop mental health issues and stress. This could lead to their confidence and productivity levels dropping. It could also lead to long-term sickness.

Gaslighting grievances

Gaslighting grievances usually involve a manager and an employee, and often highlights a form of indirect discrimination. According to the Trades Union Congress, female employees are more likely to experience gaslighting than male employees.

Grievances involving gaslighting are difficult to prove. The gaslighting could be small, isolated acts, so other employees or HR will not witness it. The gaslighting matters could include the employee being undermined, feeling ignored, not being included in meetings or social gatherings and constantly having goalposts changed with work tasks.

HR professionals must typically investigate any situations that look like gaslighting and consider what they reasonably believe has happened, given what they know and can do going forward. They can then make recommendations accordingly. 

An example of a real-life gaslighting grievance raised was when an employee started to question their own sense of reality. They said their manager told them to do a task, then began to work on it, but then was told that’s not what was discussed; instead, they should be doing something completely different. For this employee who raised the grievance, the goalpost was continuously changing. They felt they were being excluded from meetings they should have been invited to as they involved the trajectory of their work.

In this situation, the gaslighting was subtle as the manager wasn’t giving the employee the complete picture of the task, so it set them up not to fail, but in the knowledge that they don’t have the full scope. It might therefore be that the manager knows that person can’t or won’t deliver because they haven’t got everything they need to do what they’ve been asked to do.

How can HR spot if an employee is being gaslit?

Signs of gaslighting include:

  • Is there a lack of wanting to do things the right way by the manager?

  • Is the manager not following through on policies; for example, absence management processes? 

  • Is the manager not following the disciplinary process properly or disproportionally applying a disciplinary process to one employee compared to another? 

  • Is the manager failing to document anything and avoiding taking minutes at meetings?

  • Is the manager acting irrationally, such as suspending an employee for doing something minor?

  • Are meetings always changing last minute? 

Sometimes evidence doesn’t exist, and it is often one person’s word against another. In an investigation, however, there doesn’t have to be absolute proof – only a reasonable belief that something happened. After taking testimonies from both the accuser and the accused, the investigator will need to deliberate on the outcome based on what they think is most likely to have occurred.

Avoiding allegations

When giving instructions, managers must be clear about what has been agreed with the employee and provide a follow-up by email, clearly stating any actions. This way, the manager can prove they provided the correct information and what is expected of the employee. Conversely, if the employee doesn’t feel in control and the manager isn’t giving clear instructions, the employee can always email the manager after the meeting and clearly state what they took away and what they believe their actions are from it. This written communication forms a sense of proof, which can then be used by HR to clarify how clear any communication was.

Sometimes gaslighting issues can be linked with performance management issues, so the manager should hold regular check-ins with their employee. HR should support the manager in drafting clear job descriptions and check that there is a common understanding of what the job role entails to ensure the manager and employee are on the same page.

To protect the manager, it is important that there is a regular system of 1-1 meetings and regular appraisals and acknowledgement of underperformance, if relevant. If this is not done, it can make the employee feel undermined and questioned, which could considerably impact their mental health and diminish their relationship. In addition, the employee could lose confidence in their job and belief in how good or capable they are.

The next stage for grievances

Unsurprisingly, gaslighting grievances could end in a serious and time-consuming employee relations case or tribunal claim. It could lead to constructive dismissal or even to claims of discrimination and harassment. HR must be adept at spotting the signs of gaslighting, particularly when the team and individual dynamics regularly appear to be unhealthy.

Hannah Copeland is an HR business partner at WorkNest