How to handle abuse before it destroys your life (an incomplete guide to corporate gaslighting)

If you’re crying in the loos or feeling unlike your usual self at work, take a look at what’s going on around you. Is your office making you sick? If you feel crazy but can’t explain why – it may be psychological abuse or gaslighting.

Nearly one in five Americans are bullied, and more than 60% are aware of abusive behavior in the workplace — Workplace Bullying Institute.

Chances are it may have happened to someone you love, someone you work with or someone you buy groceries from. It may have happened to you. You’re not alone. It has impacted public servants, nurses, lawyers, retailers, charity workers, new business directors, musicians, and even footballers. It can happen in every industry. It can come from bosses, colleagues, clients or outside suppliers/vendors. It’s toxic behavior in the workplace.

Until the robots take over our jobs and, short of shutting ourselves away from the world, we live and work with other humans. Humans can be bullies, gossips, assholes, and psychopaths.

Of 261 senior executives in US companies, about “1 in 5 fits the psychological profile of a psychopath, the same ratio found among prison inmates — Washington Post, 2016.

Ending toxic behavior before it becomes a problem comes down to being conscious, speaking up, knowing your rights and backing others up.

Violence and harassment are an abuse of power and arise from unequal power relations at work, in the family and in society — International Labour Organization

As the saying goes; if it sounds sexist or racist, it probably is. Whether we can do anything about it is another matter. Abuse can take more obvious forms including bullying, hazing, mobbing, discrimination, microaggression, sexual misconduct, and even violence. Most of these are recognizable immediately to us, in the moment.

There’s no universal definition and laws vary depending on where you live. If you’re an expat or immigrant, cultural differences in your new home may mean you see problems that aren’t a big deal to the locals and vice versa. International companies may have additional policies covering ethical or moral conduct but not for harassment or abuse.

Employment, Health & Safety, and anti-discrimination laws, quite rightly, tend to protect workers in specific groups from specific behaviors or in specific situations. Some toxic tactics aren’t — and may never be — recognized as unlawful but the harmful effects are often the same (and that’s where the law may apply). Proving it is work-related is where we can hit a wall.

That’s kind of the point.

“It could involve the abuser pretending to misunderstand their victim, or questioning how they remember events. They then dismiss their valid worries as “crazy” or “sensitive” until the person is confused and vulnerable” — The Independent, 2018.

Abuse may be more subtle, a pervasive attitude or vibe about the place that makes you uncomfortable. Observe, make notes — are there passive-aggressive types, narcissists, or backstabbers? Is the water cooler conversation more vindictive than harmless? The culture and management style could have you on edge, constantly fearing attack and second-guessing yourself.

“While it is nice to have a buzz term for this mental manipulation, gaslighting, I prefer to call it what it is: abuse” — Wendy Squires, “Being Bullied by a Nasty Boss Helped Wendy Squires Learn to Stand Her Ground.”, 2016.

As a google search will tell you, the term “gaslighting” originally came from a 1938 play (and the 1944 movie) about a husband who torments his wife, making her doubt her own sanity. This is a form of emotional abuse that is increasingly observed in the workplace. What happens in life also happens at work.

Oxford Dictionaries’ words of the year in 2018 included “gaslighting” and “toxic” which is a sad but important indicator of how prevalent the behavior is. As Emma Brockes in The Guardian said, these words “seem expressly to reflect the heightened emotional and political state in which many of us are currently living.”

Let’s assume they won’t.

1 in 2 Canadians reported bullying to their employer. Only 1 in 3 employers took action. — Forum Research 2018

If you’re feeling anxious and distressed, you may not feel capable of taking on the fight. Do what you need to do but, we can’t all be Joan of Arc. There’s safety in numbers — recent high profile cases of sexual harassment, #metoo, and sexism at work gained traction because many people were brave enough to come forward.

  • Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson was vilified by the media, management and other colleagues but once she went public with her sexual harassment case, others followed. An earlier (confidential) lawsuit required Fox to hold compulsory discrimination and harassment training every year but, it still happened.
  • The UK’s Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was originally introduced to deter stalkers and while harassment is not defined, it includes “causing anxiety or distress” as evidence. Because a ruling was appealed in 2006, the law now covers harassment due to employment.
  • In Japan, there are moves to legislate against “power harassment.” Pawahara is any kind of behavior in which a senior person takes advantage of his or her position in the workplace to cause coworkers physical or psychological pain, “in the year that ended in March 2018, labor bureaus across Japan handled more than 72,000 requests for help and counseling concerning various forms of bullying and harassment at workplaces, including pawahara.”

It’s worth going on the record to a) protect yourself against retaliation, b) for evidence and c) to help others who may face a similar situation. The reason laws change is because someone felt the fear and did it anyway, despite the repercussions. As a result, legal precedents are set, providing more protection. When it’s so toxic it hurts, knowing you did the right thing for your future sanity can be a relief. It may also help those who have yet to go through it.

When people suffer in silence until their exit interviews or worse, talk to the press or write a book, it’s not enough to respond by putting a poster on the communal fridge.

Companies with toxic workplace cultures suffer from lost productivity, eroded profits and employee turnover as top talent flees — Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Statistics Canada estimates absenteeism due to bullying and harassment costs companies around $19 billion per year.

The bigger the business, the harder it is to see what’s actually going on. Lynn Taylor, the author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, says “the majority of bullies in the workplace today (…) know how to stay under the radar, so they stay in their position for a very long time.”

The onus is on responsible employers to be proactive and responsive — offer training, implement internal policies and take disciplinary action. Companies will try to protect themselves and despite the title, HR isn’t always our friend. Nicola Kemp, an editor at Campaign, believes forcing complainants to sign their rights away through NDA or termination agreements are equally harmful, “they’re a form of gaslighting. The women turn in on themselves, blaming themselves for experiences that are not their fault.”

If you’re in the wrong environment, every day is a test. Though it may feel similar, this isn’t high school, you don’t get to graduate and leave it all behind at the end of the year. Employees carry the responsibility of reporting incidents and providing proof. Unfortunately, by the time there’s real evidence of harm (eg. a recognized psychiatric illness), it may be too late to escape the damage done.

Consider speaking to a counselor and an employment lawyer about your particular situation until you’re comfortable making a move.

Written originally for Corporate Gaslighting, an anti workplace abuse initiative from Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy EMEA at R/GA, @Robertc1970. For more information and support, follow Corporate Gaslighting and visit They Tried to Kill Me But I Live

Formerly @ New York Times, Ogilvy, Fox News, CCNY-BIC, Leo Burnett. Brand strategist, news researcher, writer: trends, brands, culture, media

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