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Gaslighting at work - Spotting the signs of subtle workplace bullying

Subtle workplace bullying also known as Gaslighting

The term Gaslighting is a ‘label’ which embraces a cocktail of inappropriate and often manipulative workplace practices. Sadly, these unacceptable practices are commonplace. Historically, we have described these practices as ‘subtle workplace bullying’.


The term Gaslighting is based on a 1944 film ‘Gaslight’ starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s character marries and mysterious things start to happen to her in her marriage. Her husband convinces her that she is imaging things, when in fact he is scheming with criminal intent. Psychologists describe Gaslighting as a subtle but unhealthy manipulative behaviour. An employee who is the subject of gaslighting will likely, certainly initially, struggle to understand what is occurring – similar to Bergman’s character in the film.


Typically, an employee cannot ‘put their finger on the problem’. They believe they are imagining things. They may even feel ‘non-credible’. All the employee knows is they feel constantly undermined or excluded and they start to develop trust issues within the workplace. Their confidence and productivity levels suffer. They start to feel unwell. They may even be signed off work by their GP with work-related stress.


Gaslighting is classic abuse of power. It is bullying. It’s a manipulate power-game, which individuals or groups of individuals play within a workplace with deliberate intent to control an individual or control a situation. A perpetrator could be a co-worker or a line manager. However, Gaslighting may be cultural ie: from the top down, condoned at Corporate management level. It’s an entirely unacceptable, subtle, management style.

What are the signs of Gaslighting?

Spotting the signs of Gaslighting is easier than you might think. Signs (not exclusively) include;


  • A lack of openness and transparency. This may be with immediate line management in a one-on-one relationship or it may be at Corporate level involving an entire Executive Board and/or a business owner.

  • A reluctance to minute meetings or draw-up file-notes. We should not assume this is down to a lack of management skills. It could be intentional and therefore far more serious.

  • Refusal to follow policies unless it suits the business. For example, reluctance to acknowledge a verbal employee complaint or investigate a formal grievance but at the same time applying a forceful approach to performance management and disciplinary policies.

  • Drip-feeding information or failing to provide full facts (which we have historically described as ‘setting a person up to fail’) or repeatedly re-scheduling meetings or withholding important information.

  • Moving goal-posts or changing elements of an employee job description without first engaging in discussion or making reference to a change-management policy.

  • Springing surprises ie: calling last-minute meetings but failing to share data or advise in advance what the purpose of the meeting is and what the likely outcomes may be.

  • Knee-jerk Suspensions over minor issues where a discussion or an informal meeting will have resolved any misunderstanding.

  • Instant Dismissals without following due process.

  • The inappropriate use of the term ‘Redundancy’ simply because a management team want to release an employee and/or make changes within the business

  • Failure to carry out fair and thorough grievance or disciplinary investigations and deciding in advance of an investigation that an employee’s complaint will not be upheld (ie: pre-determined outcomes). Warning signs include a refusal to appoint an independent, impartial, workplace investigator in grievance and disciplinary cases.

  • Undermining behaviour intended to destroy an employee’s confidence. For example, open criticism or alleging that others have complained where, in fact, there is no evidence of any complaint.

Is Gaslighting affecting you at work?

It is highly likely that Gaslighting has occurred in your workplace at some point in time. You may know someone who has experienced this behaviour. You may be experiencing Gaslighting yourself at this moment in time. The above are just a few examples.


It really can, and often is, extremely deep-routed within business, whether that business is private or public sector. It is important to remember that any one of the above circumstances, in isolation, does not necessarily make a case for Gaslighting. However, where a number of the above scenarios are occurring at work, and you are anxious, seek help immediately. Call The National Bullying Helpline on 0845 22 55 787 if you believe Gaslighting is occurring in your workplace.

The National Bullying Helpline

Call: 0300 323 0169 or 0845 22 55 787

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Call the National Bullying Helpline on

0300 323 0169 or

0845 22 55 787

Open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday