5 tips for handling gaslighting employees

Cartoon image of a shades-of-orange flame Gaslighting: to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. (Google definition)

How does this show up at work?

“Oh, sorry, I never got that email. Are you sure you sent it?”

“I wasn’t supposed to take care of that – we never discussed it.”

“You said you were going to ask {other team member} to do it.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It didn’t happen that way.”

“Hey, I know we’re all stressed right now. Don’t worry about it – you just forgot what we agreed on.”

And so on. Often accompanied by wide-eyed innocence, or – worse – by worried looks and raised eyebrows implying you’re kinda losing it.

In short, gaslighters lie, evade, prevaricate, avoid, change the subject, and anything else they can come up with to make you think you’re the one at fault.

And it can work – really, really well. It can make you feel uncertain – did I actually have that conversation, or only imagine it? – and hesitant in your decision-making and conversations with your team. You might find yourself wobbly in delegation, anxious in your personal relationships, and even doubting whether you’re really cut out to be a manager and leader.

In short, if you feel confused and frustrated by an employee’s behavior, but you’re not quite sure why, or whether you even “should” be feeling that way – you could well be dealing with a gaslighter.

So what to do?

Start by believing yourself

The gaslighter is brilliant at making you doubt yourself instead of them. You end up gaslighting yourself.

And that can be hard to get out of, because the whole thing is so nuanced and fuzzy. Maybe you really did mis-remember what that conversation was about – or even if it happened at all!

No. Stop. Decide that it did happen the way you remember.

Document, document, document

You can’t change what happened, and you can’t get the gaslighter to admit that you’re right and they’re wrong. That just devolves into ever-more gaslighting on their part.

Going forward, though, you absolutely can document what happens.

Sending an email? Send it with a read receipt, and keep those read receipts in a safe folder on your computer.

Having a conversation? Document it afterwards in an email outlining what was agreed upon. (Don’t forget the read receipt.) You can try asking them to reply to the email indicating their agreement, but of course it’s easy enough for them to simply ignore that request. And yes, I know email read receipts aren’t always reliable. Do your best; that’s all anyone can do.

Be careful using tools, such as Slack, that don’t clearly indicate whether someone’s read a message. If you have to use such a tool, set a standard that everyone must respond with a check-mark or other emoji response indicating that they’ve seen the message. Then if there’s no response from the gaslighter, you can check in with them via an email.

Obviously you can’t document something that didn’t happen, but that the gaslighter claims did. However, you can cover some of those situations by confirming – for instance – meeting times or task delegation in email or whatever tool you normally use. Include a statement that says, “If this changes, I’ll follow up with an email / message.”

You get the point.

Stay calm

The gaslighter’s day is made when their behavior rattles you. And their favorite response is, “I was just kidding – you’re over-reacting!”

As the saying goes, don’t let ’em see you sweat.

Stay outwardly calm, no matter what’s going on inside. You can rant to a friend (not another team member or co-worker!) later.

Maybe call them on it

Confronting a gaslighter seldom goes well; it just plays into their game. “Plausible deniability” is their superpower.

If you have iron-clad documentation, it might be worth a conversation – but any one-on-one conversation can be yet another tool in their toolbox for claiming that what you know happened, didn’t happen. And be very, very careful, because that “claiming what happened” thing can turn into an accusation to HR that you’re harrassing them.

Maybe go to HR or your boss

Do you trust HR? Do you trust your boss? Do you have any indication that your HR representative or your boss may already be misled by the gaslighter?

This is hard stuff, but the reality is that if your gaslighting employee is good at what they do – by which I mean BOTH at their job AND at gaslighting – your boss and your HR people may choose to believe them over anything you say, unless you have copious amounts of that iron-clad documentation. There are endless examples of companies choosing to retain toxic employees because they’re “so good” at their job.

No, it’s not easy

The gaslighting employee is one of the most difficult situations to handle. Employees who are difficult in other ways – failing to complete projects, demonstrating unethical behavior, and so on – are a lot easier (though never fun) to confront, coach, and, when necessary, let go.

Gaslighting by definition is fuzzy, uncertain, nuanced, and hard to pin down.

Whatever you choose to do, do not under any circumstances let them convince you that you’re wrong. As a leader, you have plenty of opportunities to actually be wrong, without taking on anything extra!

Got a gaslighting employee? Let’s talk.