Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

In her excellent book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro), Dr. Robin Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

From this apt definition, we can tease out two major elements of gaslighting:

First, it is intentional and targeted toward a specific individual or group. It is not accidental or inadvertent. (After all, I cannot imagine a sincere apology along the lines of oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to gaslight you.)

Second, it is emotionally manipulative, designed to disorient and even frighten those on the receiving end. It’s about messing with someone’s perceptions of reality.

In short, gaslighting is a tool for taking, preserving, or abusing power. At work, it may be a component of workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, anti-union campaigns, or seemingly bizarre management pronouncements. I am glad that we have a term that captures such targeted, disorienting behaviors.

That said, there’s always the risk that the term can be overused.

In earlier posts, I predicted that now that gaslighting is becoming a more mainstream entry in our vocabulary of interpersonal abuse, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors at times. I believe this is now coming true. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed gaslighting being invoked in situations where the apparent factual circumstances did not justify its use.

Borrowing from an earlier post, gaslighting is sometimes confused with:

  • an honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • an argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • someone being obstinate or stubborn;
  • erroneous, even confusing, directives and instructions;
  • one side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “white lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • instances of incivility; or,
  • an incoherent explanation.

Indeed, I recently found myself characterizing a description of someone’s behavior as gaslighting, until I had to acknowledge that their actions didn’t reach that level. I believe that using the term gaslighting has become a, well, cool way of demonstrating that we’re in the know about the lingo of emotional manipulation. It then can be used as a sharp, negative, blanket label to characterize someone else’s objectionable statements or actions, even when they don’t quite fit the definition.

Especially in situations where negative emotions escalate, it can be tempting to slap a tag of gaslighting on communications (in person, on paper, or online) that become heated. However, if we are to save the use of this term for the specific, nasty tool of mistreatment that it is, then we should not hurl it across the room, so to speak, whenever angry disagreements occur. Unfortunately, there is enough real gaslighting going on to ensure many opportunities for its continued proper use.

Let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses

 

For those of us who are committed to making human dignity a framing characteristic of modern society, let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed an unsurprising but nonetheless troubling trend about traffic to this blog. On balance, pieces that discuss the hurt, pain, and injustice of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get higher readership stats than those that discuss systemic solutions, law reform, and possible paths toward individual healing & recovery.

This appears to be a twist on internet clickbait patterns generally, whereby online readers are drawn to negative topics that validate and fuel outrage. Let’s face it: Sometimes we’re more likely to curse the darkness than to light a candle. Especially if you’ve been a target of workplace abuse, it’s perfectly natural to react in such a manner.

But lighting that candle towards effective solutions and responses must be our primary objective. And therein lies the hard work before us. In terms of what that means, I can speak only for myself.

Of course, I remain steadfastly committed to enacting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. As I wrote earlier this year (link here), we’re on a gradual but inevitable march toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S. It’s taking a long time to do this, particularly in the face of corporate opposition, but we are making genuine progress.

Overall, I’ll be continuing work on several fronts that encourages our legal systems, places of employment, and other political and civic institutions to embrace human dignity as a primary framing value. I will be emphasizing this theme as part of my service on three non-profit boards, in particular: The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, and Americans for Democratic Education Fund.

I’m also excited about a new course I’m offering at my law school during the coming semester. It’s called the Law and Psychology Lab, and it will incorporate heavy doses of therapeutic jurisprudence, encouraging law students to examine how laws can support psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions. In addition to developing projects on topics of individual interest, the students will work on a larger, co-created group project with a specific theme, which for this initial offering will be bullying, abuse, and trauma along the lifespan. We will be making some of the results of our work publicly available.

Here’s to a 2020 full of positive change. Let’s all be a part of it.

France Télécom bullying verdict: Guilty, with bosses sent to prison

In a closely-watched legal case about a horrific campaign of workplace bullying and abuse linked to several dozen suicides by workers approximately a decade ago, executives of France Télécom have been convicted and sentenced to short prison terms for violating France’s moral harassment code. Angelique Chrisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom have been given prison sentences and fines after being found guilty of “institutional harassment” and creating a culture of routine workplace bullying that sparked a number of suicides at the company.

The landmark ruling is likely to send shockwaves through the French business world. It is the first time managers have been held criminally responsible for implementing a general strategy of bullying even if they had not dealt directly with the staff involved.

France’s moral harassment code allows for both civil (damages to claimant) and criminal (potential prison terms) claims associated with bullying, mobbing, and harassment. The criminal provisions are rarely used, but the allegations behind the France Télécom case were supported by considerable evidence.

As further reported by the Guardian‘s Chrisafis:

The court heard harrowing accounts of what one employee had called a terrifying management strategy to destabilise workers. Families described systematic psychological abuse against staff as bosses focused ruthlessly on cost-cutting and job cuts.

Between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees killed themselves. The company had been privatised and was undertaking a restructuring plan during which bosses set out to cut more than a fifth of the workforce – more than 22,000 jobs.

The investigation focused on the cases of 39 employees, 19 of whom killed themselves, 12 who attempted to, and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick as a result of the pressure.

At least one of the defendants has indicated that an appeal will be filed, so the legal proceedings in this case are probably far from over.

Relevance to the U.S.

As I wrote earlier this year about this case, American readers may be asking, if France Télécom wanted to reduce their workforce, then why didn’t they simply do a mass layoff? In France, employees have much stronger protections against termination compared to those in the United States, where most workers are subject to the rule of at-will employment, which allows employers to discharge them without cause. In a somewhat sick irony, the stronger French worker protections likely led France Télécom bosses to opt for a campaign of virulent bullying and abuse to prompt workers to leave “voluntarily.”

In the U.S., in most instances it would be unnecessary for an employer to use bullying to reduce a workforce by attrition, because it could announce a layoff for reasons of finances or restructuring and that would be that. Of course, we also know that this considerable power to hire and terminate hasn’t prevented bullying and mobbing from occurring in American workplaces — buttressed by the reality that it is often a legally enabled form of abuse.

Fallout

It’s too early to gauge the long-term impact of this court decision. This is a trial court ruling, subject to appeal, so it may be some time before this proceeding becomes final.

Nonetheless, we can hope that news coverage of this trial and verdict will buoy efforts to enact workplace anti-bullying laws around the world. This includes the Healthy Workplace Bill here in America, which continues to face strong corporate and employer opposition.

The fact that corporate executives have been found guilty and sentenced to prison for engaging in severe bullying and abuse will no doubt be satisfying to so many people who have experienced this form of targeted mistreatment. However, this case also illustrates how the wheels of justice can grind very slowly with only modest results. The events in question took place over a decade ago. The three convicted executives received one-year prison sentences, with eight months suspended, plus relatively small fines. That’s a small price to pay for abuse associated with many deaths and ruined lives.

Furthermore, it took dozens of completed and attempted suicides to call attention to what happened within this company. In the meantime, workplace bullying and mobbing continues to go unchecked in countless numbers of workplaces. Even if, thank goodness, the abusive behavior does not always translate into suicidal ideation, it leaves in its trail considerable trauma and severely damaged livelihoods and careers.

Regardless, I’ll take this development as a firm step in the right direction. Bullied France Télécom workers and their families received some semblance of justice by this verdict. Furthermore, it is bringing worldwide attention to the role of the law in preventing and responding to targeted work abuse. 

“How can I make a living doing workplace anti-bullying work?”

Webpage for Workplace Bullying University training program, facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie

Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges with folks about options for making a living doing workplace anti-bullying work. My upshot? One should look to incorporate workplace bullying and mobbing projects and initiatives into an existing work portfolio, in a compatible vocation. Otherwise, it is more realistic to be doing anti-bullying work as a meaningful part-time avocation.

In essence, creating work opportunities in this realm requires two major elements: (1) a relevant vocation; and (2) specialized knowledge.

Vocation

The first key piece involves pursuing a vocation relevant to addressing workplace bullying and mobbing. My short list includes:

  • Mental health professionals, including licensed counselors, social workers, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists;
  • Human resources and employee assistance professionals;
  • Labor union leaders and officials; 
  • Personal coaches and organizational consultants;
  • Lawyers (both plaintiff and defense) and dispute/conflict resolution specialists and ombudspersons; and,
  • Higher education faculty in pertinent fields of teaching and research.

My work as a law professor may be somewhat illustrative. I have concentrated my teaching in the employment and labor law field, and now I’m adding courses in law & psychology to the mix. I include some coverage of the legal implications of workplace bullying in these courses, but I don’t have time in a given course to make it a primary focal point. However, I’ve also made workplace bullying the leading focus of my scholarship, which, in turn, has led to the drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill and related public education initiatives such as this blog. In this manner, at least part of my living has been made doing anti-bullying work. Other aspects of this work are more of a volunteer nature.

In terms of legal practice, generic workplace bullying unrelated to discriminatory behaviors or retaliation for whistleblowing remains largely legal in the U.S. This obviously limits how much time attorneys can devote to bullying-related cases. Consequently, I don’t know of any attorney who specializes in workplace bullying claims, although some lawyers pursue cases with elements of bullying behaviors, so long as they can find sufficient legal hooks, such as discriminatory intent.

Mental health and psychology currently offer more promise for sustainable work concerning workplace bullying and mobbing. There remains a crying need for mental health professionals who are both familiar with the dynamics of workplace bullying and trained in treating psychological trauma. Organizational psychologists can also include workplace bullying in their work for employers.

Specialized knowledge

The second key piece is developing a deep well of specialized knowledge about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. A wealth of research and expert commentary is now available for those who want to teach themselves about these topics. To help folks get started, I’ve compiled an updated recommended book list (link here) and worked with the American Psychological Association to create a resource page (link here).

In addition, I highly recommend attending an intensive program of training and education about workplace bullying. Workplace Bullying University (link here), a three-day workshop facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, offers an immersive, thorough, and interactive training program for professionals who seek graduate-level knowledge and insights. It is a pricey but worthy investment for those who want to devote a significant part of their professional practices to combating workplace bullying. (Go here for my write-up on a special edition of Workplace Bullying University last spring.)

In Canada, social worker and therapist Linda Crockett offers training programs on workplace bullying through her Alberta Bullying Resource Centre (link here), including programs specially developed for mental health providers. I interviewed Linda for this blog back in September (link here), during which she explained more about her work and services.

To this I must add another important note. In terms of gaining a knowledge base, it is not enough to have been a target of workplace abuse. As terrible as that experience was, a person’s own familiarity with it does not provide a sufficient grounding in what workplace bullying and mobbing are all about. Furthermore, a formal training program can help a target gauge whether they are ready to move into a helping or service mode concerning work abuse. If they are not ready, they can do harm to themselves and to others.

Additional thoughts on coaching

Coaching is a field in which seemingly anyone can hang out a shingle (nowadays, often in virtual fashion) and claim professional status. Various coach training programs and certification processes are completely optional endeavors.

Nevertheless, for those who wish to do coaching for targets of work abuse, relevant professional training is strongly urged. Several years ago I took a year-long leadership coaching course through the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (link here). I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to do personal coaching for bullying and mobbing targets. In fact, after going through this intensive training course (which includes both learning and practicing coaching techniques), I cannot imagine referring anyone to a coach who has not completed such a program.

***

We need more trained, dedicated, and knowledgeable individuals in fields relevant to employment relations and mental health to help prevent and respond to workplace bullying and mobbing. I hope this information is helpful to those who are contemplating possibilities for doing work in this field.

MTW Newsstand: December 2019

The “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Daniel Moritz Rabson, “Working at Amazon: 189 Suicide Attempts, Mental Health Episodes Reportedly Took Place Over Five Years,” Newsweek (2019) (link here)  — “At least 189 instances of “suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and other mental health episodes” prompted emergency responses at Amazon warehouses between October 2013 and October 2018, The Daily Beast reported. The 189 calls about Amazon employees, which Amazon tracked through police reports and emergency call logs, came from 46 Amazon warehouses in 17 states. These 46 facilities make up a quarter of such spaces around the country. Calls to 911 dispatchers detailed incidents in which Amazon workers tried to cut themselves and talked about killing themselves.”

Editorial, “We all must rise above bullying, coarse dialogue,” Lincoln Journal Star (2019) (link here) — “As Charlie Bowlby prepped for a heart surgery, his co-workers made him a toe tag and took bets on whether he’d survive. . . . Complications on the operating table claimed the 53-year-old’s life, one made more difficult by the actions of his co-workers. It’s a shame that anyone would have to suffer what Bowlby did. But he’s far from the only person to endure such bullying, with his story illustrating the tragic consequences of such deeds taken too far. In general, the coarsening of our dialogue – and our growing inability to have interpersonal communication – worries us, and it extends far beyond the workplace.”

Lena Solow, “The Scourge of Workers Wellness Programs,” New Republic (2019) (link here) — “But recent research suggests that wellness programs aren’t even accomplishing the goals of promoting health or increasing productivity. In a large-scale study, 33,000 employees at BJ’s Wholesale Club were randomly assigned to be in a group taking part in the BJ’s wellness plan or a control group that was not. The study, published in JAMA in April, found that while workers showed a bump in a few self-reported health activities, there were no significant changes in clinical measures of health, absenteeism, or work performance—all supposed money-savers for employers.”

Eric Ravenscraft, “How to deal with mental illness at work,” New York Times (2019) (link here) — “Fortunately, United States law provides some protections for people with mental illnesses — just as they do for any physical disability — but they go only so far. Here, we’ll go over some of the support you can expect from your employer, but we’ll also discuss strategies you can use to get through the day, even when you’re not feeling your best.”

Kathryn Heath & Brenda F. Wensil, “To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Meetings matter. They are the forum where people come together to discuss ideas, make decisions, and be heard. Meetings are where culture forms, grows, and takes hold. So it stands to reason that if an organization desires a more inclusive culture — and leaders want to model inclusion — then meetings are the place to start. But, from what we’ve seen, executives often miss the mark.”

Peter Gosselin, “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours,” ProPublica (2018) (link here) — “ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, or HRS, the premier source of quantitative information about aging in America. Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives. Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.”

How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process

In a piece for Ideas.Ted.com (link here), Elizabeth Blackburn (Salk Institute) and Elissa Epel (UC-San Francisco Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center) explain how our negative thoughts can expedite the aging process. Blackburn, a physician and Nobel Prize recipient, and Epel, a psychologist, are co-authors of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017).

I’m going to cut & paste a bit of brain science from Drs. Blackburn and Epel to explain the role of telomeres in influencing the aging process:

Deep within the genetic heart of all our cells are telomeres, or repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of the chromosomes. They form caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. Shortening with each cell division, they help determine how fast a cell ages. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether. This isn’t the only reason a cell can become senescent — there are other stresses on cells we don’t yet understand very well — but short telomeres are one of the major reasons human cells grow old.

In essence, longer telomeres are good, and shorter telomeres are bad, at least if we care about aging. Blackburn and Epel then identify five thought patterns that lead to the shortening of telomeres:

  • “Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility.”
  • “Pessimism is the second thought pattern that has been shown to have negative effects on telomeres.”
  • “Rumination — the act of rehashing problems over and over — is the third destructive thought pattern.”
  • “The fourth thought pattern is thought suppression, the attempt to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings.”
  • “The final thought pattern is mind wandering.”

Their full article goes into greater depth about the negative dynamics of each of these thought patterns. They also sum up the cumulative impact:

The negative thought patterns we’ve described are automatic, exaggerated and controlling.They take over your mind; it’s as if they tie a blindfold around your brain so you can’t see what is really going on around you.

Application to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

All of the five thought patterns examined by Blackburn and Epel are relevant to the experiences of workplace bullying and mobbing. The first three — cynical hostility, pessimism, and rumination — are especially applicable to so many who have experienced severe work abuse.

Among other things, I’ve written about “(r)umination, obsession, and the challenge of getting ‘unstuck'” (link here) when dealing with bullying and mobbing at work. I’ve also written about what Caroline Myss calls “woundology,” referring to “good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds” (link here).

The good news (and it’s real)

The good news is that we know a lot more about how to treat trauma and promote healing. Blackburn and Epel discuss better thought awareness as one way toward dealing with these negative thought patterns. They cite research showing that telomeres can actually lengthen and posit that aging can be slowed or even reversed.

Furthermore, as I’ve discussed earlier, post-traumatic growth (link here) and healing-centered engagement (link here) are real processes that are changing the ways in which we look at possibilities for healing from trauma.

But it must come from within

In a piece for Thought Catalog (link here), self-help writer Brianna Wiest asserts that although trauma is not the victim’s fault, healing from it is their responsibility. Here are some of her reasons:

  • “Healing is our responsibility because if it isn’t, an unfair circumstance becomes an unlived life.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because unprocessed pain gets transferred to everyone around us, and we are not going to allow what someone else did to us to become what we do to those we love.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have this one life, this single shot to do something important.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because if we want our lives to be different, sitting and waiting for someone else to make them so will not actually change them. It will only make us dependent and bitter.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have the power to heal ourselves, even if we have previously been led to believe we don’t.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because ‘healing’ is actually not returning to how and who we were before, it is becoming someone we have never been — someone stronger, someone wiser, someone kinder.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable about using the term “responsibility” in this context. It has a slightly finger-wagging, judgmental connotation to it. And yet, the underlying assumptions are true: Healing from trauma is possible only when the person who has experienced it is ready to work toward it. And when someone reaches that point, good things can happen.

Takeaway from Philly: The knowing-doing gap is everywhere

At the recent Work, Stress and Health Conference in Philadelphia, it took three keynote programs and a panel discussion for me to finally reach my “duh” moment: We have so much of the knowledge and understanding we need to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces. But the gap between insights gleaned from psychology, organizational behavior, and law and public policy on one hand, and the implementation of these ideas on the other, is vast.

The biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference (WSH) is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational for Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. As I’ve written before, this is one of my favorite conferences, a wonderful, recurring opportunity to share research and insights and to meet with scholars and practitioners who are doing great work. Many WSH participants have become valued friends and associates. In fact, my participation in the 2015 WSH conference led me to write about “conferences as community builders,” in a blog post that was reprinted in the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog (link here).

The huge knowing-doing gap

In the opening keynote, major priorities for labor and employment stakeholders were beautifully framed by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Stanford U.), expounding on themes raised in his 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck. Here’s a short abstract of his speech:

The workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and many workplace practices are as harmful to health as second-hand smoke. Worse than the enormous physical and psychological toll on people and the enormous economic costs to companies and society, is that no one seems to care as work arrangements move toward less, rather than more, healthful environments.

During his talk, Dr. Pfeffer identified workplace bullying and abuse as one of the most harmful work hazards.

He also referenced his previous writings on the “knowing-doing gap,” i.e., the gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually implementing it in organizations. Pfeffer developed this concept with fellow Stanford professor Robert Sutton (author of the popular bullying-related book, The No Asshole Rule). Throughout the conference, it struck me how the knowing-doing gap applies to virtually every aspect of employment relations.

The second day keynote featured Manal Azzi from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Dr. Azzi’s presentation, setting out the major initiatives of the ILO, captured how this global entity is serving as a base for enhancing the well-being of workers around the world. The ILO offers research, best practices, and policy solutions and fosters tripartite relationships between government, business, and labor. There are many keys to bridging the knowing-doing gap here.

The final day keynote program was a wide-ranging panel on work and technology, hosted by David Ballard of the APA. I was alarmed by the discussion of actual and potential employer excesses in terms of technology and employee surveillance. My main knowing-doing gap point is the obvious need for a revived labor movement to serve as a check on employer power, a point reinforced by panelist David LeGrande of the Communications Workers of America.

One path toward implementing solutions and best practices: Getting the word out

If we are to bridge this gap between knowledge and action, then greater sharing of research and insights via the media is part of our strategy. In that vein, I was part of a panel discussion, “Going Public: Sharing Our Work Through the Media,” also hosted by the APA’s David Ballard. I joined Angel Brownawell (APA), Carrie Bulger (Quinnipiac U.), Lisa Kath (San Diego State U.), and Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute). From our program abstract, here’s a short preview of what we covered:

How can scholars, researchers, and practitioners in fields relevant to worker well-being and organizational performance engage the media, serve as subject matter experts, and help inform public understanding? How can we better translate research for the general public and promote our work in ethical and professionally appropriate ways? How can we build relationships with reporters that lead to being sought out as the experts of choice and how do we prepare for those opportunities when they arise?

The knowledge we need to create better organizations that embrace worker dignity is largely at our disposal. We need to mainstream those insights and understandings in the public dialogue about work, workers, and workplaces. Engaging the media in that effort can help us to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

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