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Is it Really All Just in Your Head?

On Behalf of | Jun 5, 2023 | Firm News

Gaslighting and gaslighters. What are they, a new lighter used to ignite something? Not quite. Gaslighting refers to a form of psychological manipulation where someone (i.e. the gaslighter) causes another to question their perception, emotions, and memory. Gaslighting is a relatively new term but has existed in personal, medical provider-patient or employer-employee relationships for many years.

Gaslighting at Work

In the workplace, gaslighting is commonly used as a form of powerplay to gain control. Examples of gaslighting include but are not limited to a coworker fibbing to your boss that you never gave them a file when you did or a manager saying you are getting more emotional over a situation than it calls for. Over time, gaslighting will cause the victim’s work performance to deteriorate as they become uncomfortable at work, unmotivated, and fearful of making mistakes.

Building a Case Against Gaslighting

New Jersey courts have not fully encountered gaslighting claims yet, and surrounding states such as New York and Connecticut are in the same boat. Since gaslighting is a new concept to the legal system, these courts have relied on the hostile work environment framework when evaluating plaintiffs’ claims that are interwoven with alleged gaslighting.

If you believe you are a victim of gaslighting in your workplace, then the appropriate claim to file would be a claim of hostile work environment under the New Jersey Law against Discrimination (“NJLAD”). NJLAD is a New Jersey state law that protects employees from discrimination in their workplace. A hostile work environment claim contends that you are experiencing repeated acts of discrimination, harassment, or humiliation in your workplace. These acts make you feel as if your work environment has changed and ultimately become abusive.

A person bringing a claim must establish that the alleged harassing conduct: (1) would not have occurred but for the plaintiff’s membership in a protected category like gender; (2) was severe or pervasive; (3) to make a “reasonable” woman; (4) believe that the conditions of her employment have been altered and made the work environment hostile. The protected categories, however, consist of national origin, race, religion, age, and sex/gender. The remaining elements require that the offensive conduct is beyond mere teasing or offhand comments. The work environment must have become unsafe.

Since gaslighting is a relatively new term and courts have not frequently encountered it, a gaslighting claim will have to be molded into a hostile work environment claim. For example, you could be a woman working in an office. For the past year, your supervisor has been saying multiple comments about your physical appearance. The conduct is so severe that you now feel very uncomfortable around them, start to wear looser-fitting clothes, and try to avoid situations where you both are not alone in the same room. Your work performance and emotional health has also been impacted because you are distracted by their presence and feel as if you are constantly being watched. Yet when you bring sexual-harassment claims to HR, your supervisor keeps denying their comments. The supervisor instead tries to change the narrative and claim that you are being dramatic. They argue that they just compliment your outfit and try to welcome and engage you in the office since you seem to be anti-social and off-putting. You then start to doubt your experiences with them and feel as if maybe you are being too sensitive. This is a classic example of gaslighting in the workplace, especially by someone with a higher position.

Therefore, your “gaslighting” claim is actually a hostile work environment claim to the court and must state that your supervisor’s conduct: (1) would not have occurred were it not for the fact that you are a woman; (2) their conduct is so degrading and severe; (3) that another reasonable woman; (4) would find your work environment to be very emotionally and physically hostile. In other words, the gaslighting conduct is part of the conduct complained of which is specifically referenced in element (2). However, all the conduct complained of must tie back to element (1), membership in a protected category.

Moreover, your work performance since the conduct began will also be evaluated. In determining whether the work environment is hostile or abusive, the court will look at the totality of the circumstances and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. For instance, courts will examine the effect of the employee’s psychological well-being and their work performance. A discriminatorily abusive work environment can affect an employee’s job performance, discourage them from remaining on the job, or prevent them from advancing in their careers.  

Keep a look out for gaslighting signs in your workplace such as having your emotions or concerns downplayed and recollection of past events denied by coworkers or superior officers. Although it may be subtle at first, gaslighting is real and not “all in your head.”

Viviana Torres is a rising third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law, where she works as an interpreter for the Center for Social Justice. Viviana is also treasurer of LALSA at Seton Hall Law

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