On Tuesday, New York state Attorney General Letitia James released an explosive investigative report that concluded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) sexually harassed at least 11 female employees and created a “hostile work environment for women.“
The investigators interviewed 179 people, including the governor, his current and former staff and women who accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, and reviewed more than 74,000 pieces of evidence, including emails, texts, photos and audio. The report paints a disturbing pattern of a boss using his authority to invalidate his employees’ feelings, memories and judgment and make them question their reality when made uncomfortable by his sexual harassment.
This destructive behavior has a name: gaslighting. “Gaslighting” is a term that was popularized by the 1938 play “Gaslight,” by Patrick Hamilton, about a husband convincing his wife she is losing her mind by making false accusations and recalling fabricated memories. Cuomo is but the latest example of how gaslighting can show up in the workplace and leave lasting harm to employees’ health and careers.
Jennifer Tardy, a career coach and diversity and inclusion consultant, has seen it with her clients in toxic jobs. She defines workplace gaslighting as actions that cause employees “to question themselves, to doubt themselves, to think that they are the problem.”
Gaslighting does not end after an incident itself; it can leave lasting damage to people’s self-esteem. “You begin to believe the messaging and the doubting becomes more pervasive,” Tardy said. “I had one client who landed an amazing new job and received so much positive feedback from her new team. She couldn’t understand why it was so hard for her to receive or believe their praise. It was because she had started to believe the messaging from her last boss.”
In the case of Cuomo, the report detailed how his harassment stole away the professional and personal fulfillment his victims sought from their jobs. As Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official who said Cuomo kissed her without her consent, put it in the report: “I had worked my whole life to get to a point where I would be taken seriously and I wasn’t being taken seriously and I worked so hard to be some little doll for the Governor of New York, and that was deeply humiliating.”
That’s why it’s important to call out and identify the insidious power plays workplace gaslighters use to make their victims doubt themselves. Here are some of the common tactics Cuomo and other bad bosses and colleagues use to mess with employees’ heads:
When they uphold a culture that believes “That’s how things have always been done here.”
One way work gaslighters succeed is by making their victims doubt their judgment, even when the victims’ instincts are telling them that something is not right. When the gaslighters are bosses, this behavior can trickle down to senior staff enforcers and become normalized. The attorney general’s investigation found that the executive chamber accepted everyday flirtation and gender-based comments by the governor as just “old fashioned,” and this contributed to the conditions that allowed sexual harassment to occur and persist. Attorney Joon Kim, who co-led the investigation on Cuomo, described the workplace Cuomo led as “a culture where you could not say no to the governor and if you upset him or his senior staff you’d be written off, cast aside or worse.”
Under this set of norms, employees who speak out are cast as outliers who are being difficult or strange.
Ana Liss, a former Cuomo aide, told investigators for the report that it was normal “to view it as a compliment if the Governor finds you aesthetically pleasing enough, if he finds you interesting enough to ask questions like that.” She says the governor addressed her almost exclusively as “sweetheart” or “darling,” and alleges he put his hands on her lower waist and asked her questions about having a boyfriend.
“So even though it was strange and uncomfortable and technically not permissible in a typical workplace environment, I was in this mindset that it was the twilight zone and … the typical rules did not apply,” she said.
When they deny their behavior with lines like “They heard things that I just didn’t say.”
A workplace gaslighter will challenge your perspective, making you doubt that what happened actually happened, because, they say, that’s not how they remember it.
Former aide Charlotte Bennett is one of the accusers who said Cuomo sexually harassed her, asking her questions about whether she was monogamous and if she had sex with older men. In his testimony for the report, Cuomo blamed Bennett’s history as a sexual assault survivor as the reason she “heard through her own filter,” and that “it was often not what was said and not what was meant.”
In a statement he released after the report, Cuomo again flat-out denied Bennett’s and the other women’s accusations, saying, “They ascribe motives I never had. And simply put, they heard things that I just didn’t say.” Cuomo then claimed that his personal questions to Bennett were his way of helping her as a survivor of sexual assault, “to see if she had positive supportive dating relationships.”
When asked about Cuomo’s version of events, Bennett said that his rationalizations where “absolutely” gaslighting.
“He’s trying to justify himself by making me out to be someone who can’t tell the difference between sexual harassment and mentorship. And I think that’s absolutely absurd,” Bennett told CBS News.
Gaslighters may also deny their behavior by telling their victims that they are the only one complaining about a certain grievance, a message designed to invalidate their feelings. Common lines from gaslighting bosses and peers can include “Everyone else is happy here” and “Maybe you need thicker skin,” Tardy said.
And when they find a way to make their failures your fault.
What separates gaslighting from other bad leadership behaviors, like negligence and incompetence, is that the person’s goal is to make you believe their shortcomings are your fault.
Tardy shared the difference between a forgetful, bad boss whom you have to constantly follow up with for answers and a gaslighting boss. “A boss who is gaslighting will make you think that it’s your fault, because you need to figure out how to keep your things at the top of their mind, for you to get your things approved. That to me defines the difference,” she said. “Leaders that don’t take accountability can risk creating a toxic environment that … can feel like gaslighting to their employees.”
In Cuomo’s denial that he inappropriately touched female employees, he shifts the blame on his accusers. In response to an executive assistant who accused him of groping her, he said she was the “initiator of the hugs,” and testified that he “would go along” with it because he did not “want to make anyone feel awkward about anything.”
Ultimately, where Cuomo lost his credibility with investigators is one of the key ways to combat a gaslighter: documenting what someone is saying and doing in real time and recapping their misconduct with trusted friends and colleagues who can later corroborate your experience.
The investigators found that Cuomo’s self-defenses of denials and redirections were not convincing in contrast to the women’s direct, specific retellings. “The Governor’s blanket denials and lack of recollection as to specific incidents stood in stark contrast to the strength, specificity, and corroboration of the complainants’ recollections,” the report concluded.
Because gaslighting sows doubt, Tardy said that talking to a trusted person and using them as a sounding board can help gaslighting victims realize “‘OK, I didn’t perceive that incorrectly, this did look like X, Y, and Z.’”
Beyond sexual harassment cases like Cuomo’s, bad bosses can often make employees feel like the boss’s own shortcomings are the employee’s problem. Tardy said that she has seen this when a boss tells someone they are not ready for a promotion, but cannot tell them exactly what they need to do to improve.
“It’s always this intangible thing, ‘I need you to wait your turn,’” she said. “It plants that doubt in them when it’s really more to do with not having a strong leader who can be crystal clear to you.”
Whenever gaslighters are unable to be clear and direct, it helps to document their behavior in detail ― not only for your own sanity, but also for potential legal action down the line.
“Having a real-time record of your interactions will make it harder for your boss to question your sanity and backpedal on agreements,” Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article. “Doing this will also help you identify if you really are being gaslit.”