5 Ways to Respond to a ‘Gaslighter’

Keeping records, bringing in some help, and other tips can help you handle the office manipulators.

Sondra Levitt

Career Coach, Korn Ferry Advance

Alyson Federico

Career Coach, Korn Ferry Advance

An employee sees the entire department discussing a new client as they emerge from the conference room. Her manager, passing by, asks her, “Why weren’t you in the meeting?” The employee is dumbfounded. She says she never received an invitation and asks for details about the new client. “Next time, come to the meeting,” snaps the manager—without acknowledging the invite was never sent.

It’s called “gaslighting”—when someone manipulates or undermines you by causing you to doubt your own perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events. The term comes from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight.” In the film, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) notices missing pictures, strange footsteps in the night, and gaslights that dim without being touched. Her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), convinces her, without explicitly saying so, that she is going insane. What Paula doesn’t realize is that Gregory is behind those incidents.

Gaslighting in the office is subtler. A colleague or manager might exclude you from an important meeting or activity, or fail to share information about a project. They might tell you they will complete an important team project, then deny they ever offered to, says Sondra Levitt, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. Or they might spread gossip about you and your ability to succeed at your job.

About 58% of people say they’ve experienced gaslighting at work, according to a recent poll. With the looming recession, this behavior could become even more common. “Whenever there is an economic downturn and talks of layoffs, people respond in very dramatic ways—like becoming very territorial and gaslighting others,” Levitt says.

Here are five ways to respond if you’re being gaslighted.

Build your network.

Gaslighting only works on people who are isolated, said David Vied, Korn Ferry’s global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics. If you find you’re a target of gaslighting, focus your attention on expanding your network of colleagues rather than on digging into the details of whether you received an invitation to a meeting. “Broadening your context and backing away from the gaslighter pulls all the energy out of what that person is doing,” Vied said.

Ask other people.

If you believe someone is gaslighting you, don’t take their advice or listen to what they have to say, says Alyson Federico, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. For instance, if this person—who isn’t always truthful and whom you don’t trust—is feeding you information about an opportunity to be promoted or assigned to a new project, don’t take their word for it. “Verify with others what this person is telling you,” Federico says.

Document what’s happening.

Keep yourself anchored in reality by taking notes on what is happening, Federico says. Document what people are saying and doing, and keep a record of emails you didn’t receive and meetings you weren’t invited to, she says: “Collect as much irrefutable data as possible.” It’s not uncommon to feel confused or doubt your own memory, so it’s a good idea to write down the details of an incident right after it occurs, says Valerie Olson, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.

Consider confronting the gaslighter.

Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, Levitt says, but consider approaching the gaslighter and presenting your case. “State facts and incidents without judgment or emotion,” she says. This shows that you can advocate for yourself. In addition, if you bring your concerns to HR or your manager, it is very likely they will ask you if you’ve already spoken with this person about their behavior, she says.

Talk to HR.

If the person’s behavior is affecting your work or your relationship with others, report what you’re seeing and experiencing to HR or your manager, Federico says. If you’re being gaslighted by your boss, report it to HR, Olson says, and if a colleague is the culprit, report it to both your manager and HR.


For more information, contact Korn Ferry Advance.