9 Ways to Battle Bogus, Gaslighting, Trash-Talking Co-Workers

Talking smack at work is nothing new, but here’s how to handle it

Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

Have you ever walked away from an interaction with a co-worker or read an email from a supervisor that did not sit well with you but was not overtly offensive? Maybe you shrugged it off and told yourself you were overly sensitive, and perhaps you were. But the odds are that your instincts were on point. Historically, Black women have endured the brunt of both racial and gender-based discrimination, and the workspace is no different.

Although Black women and Black trans women have made tremendous strides in the workforce, we still are overrepresented among minimum-wage-earning workers, are hired and promoted slower than our White peers, and are routinely paid less than both White men and women. Discussions about discrimination against Black women in employment typically center around more overt examples. But we also experience various forms of microaggressions and gaslighting that present as manipulative communication from our White — and often from our Black — co-workers and supervisors. Until there is an end to misogynoir in the workplace, we can take refuge in knowing we aren’t alone. There are ways to navigate manipulative language without losing our minds or our job.

Discussing discrimination directed toward us in the workforce is almost like beating a never-ending drum that few folks actually hear. Essence magazine recently conducted a survey that revealed 45% of Black women say they experience racism in their place of employment most often compared to all other areas of their lives. Discrimination at our jobs can include being overlooked for promotions in favor of our less experienced White or non-Black co-workers, not being seen as credible as our White colleagues, being told we’re not social enough, being micromanaged, and microaggressions such as being cut off or talked over in staff meetings with peers of equal station.

That said, it’s no secret that White women also experience their fair share of discrimination in the workplace. But Black women face unique challenges that are, in many cases, inflicted at the hands of both White men and women. According to Forbes, “White women are stereotypically seen as communal: pleasant, caring, deferential, and concerned about others.” Black women, on the other hand, carry a different cross. We are not viewed as communal but as angry and aggressive. As a result, we are challenged with maintaining a balance between appearing assertive enough to command our peer’s respect but not too assertive. And even on our best days — when we have checked all the boxes and are friendly while remaining focused, cold but still hot, quiet while loud, and then do the hokey pokey and turn ourselves around — we will continue to feel the sting of discrimination in the workforce.

Although some folks might think the term “gaslight” is a nuanced buzzword, it’s an age-old form of communication that centers on emotionally manipulative communication or psychological manipulation. Manipulative language comes in many tricky forms that can sometimes appear harmless but are dangerous and can further perpetuate the oppression of Black women. The key to better navigate these experiences is to recognize them.

Some of the signs of gaslighting language includes the following:

  • Manipulating the truth or facts.
  • Playing the “victim.”
  • Providing little time to make a decision.
  • Repeating a person’s name to intimidate or belittle.
  • The use of irony or humor to humiliate.
  • The use of silence or evasiveness to dismiss or shut out.
  • Calming ignorance — (e.g., “I don’t know what you mean” when you know they know full well what you mean).
  • Making the other person speak first to gain an unfair advantage in the conversation.
  • The use of excessive and unnecessary statistics or reference to procedures during a heated discussion.

Psychologically manipulative communication is a systemic problem, and when we become targeted by it, it’s important to remember it’s not our fault. Being described as “hard to work with” or “not a team player,” for example, are words to watch out for but not to internalize.

When trying to distinguish between authentic communication and manipulative communication, it is good to remember that you are battling a system and not just a person or a manager.

Try these tips the next time you feel gaslit at work:

1. Rest where you feel safe.

If possible, identify individuals both inside and outside of your workspace who support you personally and professionally.

2. Know your worth.

Know your worth and try to not align it with the opinion of your co-workers.

3. Call out manipulative communication in the moment.

There might be times when confronting manipulative communication can be damaging, but when possible, address it when it happens or not too long after. And when you do, stick to the facts.

4. Don’t be afraid to be the “squeaky wheel.”

If you find yourself hitting a brick wall when trying to address gaslighting at work, don’t be afraid to go above your co-worker or supervisor to report your experiences to HR or other appropriate departments.

5. Document, document, document.

If you have to file a grievance or other complaint, make sure to keep emotionally manipulative email correspondence and follow-up on discussions about manipulative communication by email.

6. Resist the urge to internalize.

Although it might be difficult at times, remember these underhanded communication tactics are not about you but rather the person using them against you.

7. Live your best life.

Create a fulfilling and enriching life outside of work that pours into your spirit and nourishes your happiness.

8. Don’t be afraid to keep it pushing.

If you’ve exhausted all options, don’t be afraid to keep it pushing and find a better-suited place of employment. As a rule, remaining in an environment that no longer serves you is never a good idea.

9. Talk to a professional.

The psychological and emotional effects of racism are linked to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and racial battle fatigue. Simply put, discrimination hurts, and when all else fails — or even if it doesn’t — consider talking to a professional counselor or a work coach.

Professor, Forbes Contributor, Race Scholar, Activist, Therapist, Keynote Speaker, Consultant, Wife, Mother, & Addict of Ice Cream &Cheese. www.drmaiahoskin.com

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