Workplace stalking can cause distress, foster tension between employees, and reduce productivity. This scary form of harassment can happen to anyone, so it is important to be prepared with strong workplace policies and training programs.
According to a study in the Journal of the Kentucky Medical Association, a staggering 44 per cent of stalking incidents result in workplace violence. That number jumps to 67 per cent in medical facilities. Stalking in the workplace is a real threat that can’t be ignored.
Keep reading to learn more about the definition of stalking in the workplace, how to prevent it, and how to investigate it should a stalking situation occur.
Understanding the exact definition of stalking is the first step to preventing it. Stalking can be described as repeated, unwanted contact that makes the victim feel afraid or distressed.
A wide variety of behaviors fall under the umbrella of stalking, including:
- Following the victim or lying in wait for them
- Leaving or sending unwanted gifts and parcels to the victim’s home or workplace
- Damaging the victim’s property
- Threatening harm to the victim or their property, friends, family, or pets
- Defaming the victim’s character by spreading rumors or filing false complaints with police or the victim’s employer
- Lying to the victim’s employer, family, or friends in order to obtain more information about the victim
Cyberstalking, stalking behaviors carried out through technology, is especially worrisome. Victims may never actually see their stalker, making it more difficult to apprehend them.
Examples of cyberstalking include:
- Tracking the victim using GPS or cameras
- Gathering information on the victim via listening devices, computer spyware, or the Internet
- Sending unwanted online messages or images
- Posing as the victim online and posting unflattering or false information about them
- Using information acquired online to intimidate the victim by calling them or showing up at their home or workplace
In the case of coworker stalking, the stalker has easy access to the victim. Here are some examples of internal stalking behaviors:
- Leaving gifts on the victim’s desk
- Taking “souvenirs” from the victim’s workspace
- Monitoring the victim while at work
- Accessing the victim’s personal information through confidential workplace files
- Need to be physically close to the victim or touching them
- Staring at the victim for long periods of time without speaking
When thinking about stalking in the workplace, it is important to recognize the different types of stalkers.
Stalkers may or may not have a mental health disorder. They likely know their victim personally, but that is not always the case. The one thing that all stalkers share is an obsession with their target.
The most common type of stalker is someone who once had a romantic relationship with their victim. Their aim is to continue the relationship after the target has ended it or to harm the victim in retaliation after a break-up. This type of stalking comes with the highest risk of violence.
Some stalkers have no previous relationship with their target but want to pursue one. This type of stalking presents a lower risk of violence but often lasts for a longer period of time.
Erotomaniacs believe that they are in a romantic relationship with their target. They continue these delusions despite evidence to the contrary, which often leads to stalking. They think that their victim loves them but cannot return their affections due to external circumstances or that the target returns affection to them through coded actions. Erotomaniacal stalkers can pose a threat of violence to both their target and themselves.
Stalking can manifest in the workplace in a few different ways.
Employees may be stalked by a client of your organization. Because the client knows the employee’s contact information due to their business relationship, it is especially easy for them to engage in cyberstalking behaviors.
An employee may also be stalked by a coworker. Whether they were in a previous romantic relationship or not, this situation can cause problems for the entire workplace. The stalker has easy access to the victim and their information. Other employees may also take sides in the event of coworker stalking.
Stalkers from outside the workplace can still have an impact on employees while they are at work. They may hack the employee’s computer, send them unwanted messages or parcels at work, drop by the workplace, or follow them to their car after the work day is over. When an external stalking situation follows an employee to work, the risk of violence increases.
Negative Effects of Workplace Stalking
Physical and psychological harm to your employee are the most obvious negative effects of stalking. However, workplace stalking can also cause occupational damage.
When an employee is the victim of stalking, they will likely show a drop in their performance at work. Because they are in distress, they may not being able to concentrate on their work or easily catch up after missed days.
Harassing phone calls, emails, and other intrusions by their stalker can also cut into the employee’s productive work time. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimates that on average, a victim of intimate partner violence and stalking will lose $730 in productivity each year.
Victims of stalking may also require more time off work than usual. Fear of leaving the house or running into their stalker (especially if it is a coworker) can keep them at home.
Dealing with legal matters or talking time to heal from their physical or psychological wounds add to their absenteeism. In fact, 50 percent of stalking victims report reducing time at work or even completely quitting their job as a result of the situation.
Tension may arise in the workplace in the event of a coworker stalking allegation. Employees may not believe the victim or think they are overreacting. This is why including stalking in your harassment policy is essential.
If a case of workplace stalking turns violent, your organization may also suffer financially. Premise liability refers to the legal theory that your workplace is to blame if violence occurs there. It is up to your organization to reduce hazards to employees’ safety wherever possible.
For workplace stalking, this can mean training employees to recognize the warning signs of workplace violence and screening out candidates with a history of violence when staffing. Dealing with premises liability claims in the event of workplace violence can cost your organization a hefty sum.
In a word, yes!
Stalking is an intense form of harassment that can occur both outside and within the workplace. Canada’s Department of Justice actually refers to stalking as criminal harassment.
Even if the victim never has actual contact with their stalker, the behavior is still considered harassment. Unwelcome behaviors that cause fear and distress in the victim should never be brushed off or ignored.
To learn about other types of workplace harassment, download this free cheat sheet.
How to Prevent Workplace Stalking
With just a few preventive measures, you can stop workplace stalking before it starts. Strong policies are key to preventing stalking in the workplace. Write a solid harassment policy and be sure to include stalking behaviors, emphasizing that they are not appropriate contact.
Develop policies detailing the processes for dealing with aggressive behavior, including how to file reports of suspicious behavior and harassment complaints. The simpler and clearer your policies are, the more likely victims are to come forward before it’s too late.
Educating managers about stalking ensures victims have someone to go to for disclosure of the incident and support throughout the process. Form a health and safety committee for employees, making sure to include information on how to deal with workplace stalking and violence in their training.
Finally, make your workplace a safe space. This includes both physical and psychological safety measures. Creating a safe environment can mean:
- Installing security cameras and secure entrances
- Allowing flexible work hours
- Informing security guards and reception of the situation, including name and description of the stalker if possible
- Ensuring employees don’t hand out information about other employees (i.e. phone numbers, work hours, emails, etc.) to anyone
- Providing information on organizations that support stalking and harassment victims
- Emphasizing the confidentiality of harassment reports
- Training managers on how to address stalking allegations in a sensitive manner, such as meeting with the victim in a private location and asking non-threatening questions
- Establishing a workplace environment that is free of judgement
Even if you take preventive measures, workplace stalking can still occur. In this situation, give employees who may have contact with the stalker a quick refresher on your company’s harassment policy and procedures.
When discussing stalking in the workplace, always stay calm. Employees may feel scared, so focusing on policy can keep the situation from getting any worse. Tailor your investigation to the victim and their situation, as no two stalking situations are exactly alike.
Handling Stalking Situations
Keeping employees safe should be your number-one priority when stalking occurs in the workplace. Organizations have ethical and legal obligations to offer support and security to their employees. Perform a risk assessment on the victim and any other employees who may be exposed to the stalker and create personalized safety plans for each person.
Use our risk matrix template to help you develop personal safety plans for your at-risk employees.
In order to keep the victim safe, analyze any potential threats to their safety, like hiding places, poorly lit areas, and unsecure building access points. Assign someone to escort the victim to and from their car. Offer to let them vary their work hours to throw off the stalker.
If possible, allow the victim to change work stations or even work locations as well as their phone extension and email address. If they are being stalked by a client, do not allow contact between the client and your employee until the investigation is over.
Call the police if a stalker presents immediate danger to the victim or other employees. If the target has a restraining order against their stalker, inform law enforcement of any breaches.
Dealing with Internal Stalkers
When your workplace is faced with a coworker stalking situation, there are some extra measures you need to take during the investigation. Addressing the situation quickly is key to reducing the impact on the victim, the stalker, and your company.
Maintaining respect for both parties when an employee accuses another of stalking makes the investigation process go more smoothly. Find balance by listening to both sides non-judgmentally and explaining why decisions are made.
Never rationalize or excuse stalking behavior, even if the accused is a top employee. Brushing off reports of stalking not only puts the victim in danger, but also discourages other victims from coming forward in the future.
Throughout the investigation, be sure to reinforce your workplace’s harassment policies and remind employees of the consequences of breaching these policies. Remind workplace stalking victims to always report harassing behaviors. Documenting these incidents makes it easier to investigate stalking allegations.
When investigating stalking in the workplace, never force mediation between your employees. Be sensitive to the victim’s feelings. Having to face their stalker can cause further trauma, so only plan a mediation meeting if the victim is willing.
Should the accused stalker have a grievance, inform them of your workplace’s complaints procedures. However, make sure you aren’t taking sides with the accused or inadvertently helping them harass the victim.
In the event that legal action is taken against your employee for stalking, take disciplinary action against them at work as well. Whether this means suspension or termination of employment, consider the victim’s feelings when deciding what actions to take.
Investigating stalking can be difficult, especially if the victim is unsure who is stalking them. Workplace stalking investigations can also be tricky because the behaviors associated with stalking are often not criminal on their own.
When investigating stalking in the workplace, gather as much evidence as you can. Ask the victim to save any threatening messages, record phone calls from the stalker if possible, and keep a log of other interactions with the stalker. The more evidence you have, the stronger your case will be.
Praise employees who disclose stalking behaviors and emphasize the importance of reporting harassment. Many victims minimize stalking incidents in their minds or fear there is not enough evidence to apprehend their stalker. They may also fear backlash. Reassuring employees of your investigation’s confidentiality makes them more likely to cooperate.
In workplace stalking cases, early intervention can save the victim from mental anguish and even death. The victim has likely tried and failed to stop the stalking behavior themselves, so working quickly is crucial. Learn how to recognize signs of stalking in the victim, such as verbalizing their fear without making a report, inability to concentrate, and missing work more than usual.
During your interview with the victim, take precise notes or even record the session. They may tell their story out of order or with missing details, which can be confusing to the interviewer to piece together later. Show support for the victim and maintain a non-judgmental attitude.
When interviewing the suspect, be observant. Take note of their phone model (for possible forensic investigation), turns of phrase, and other clues about their involvement in the case. The suspect may also openly discuss their victim, trying to convince you that their actions are acceptable. Avoid helping them rationalize their behavior.
Keep the suspect’s past in mind, too. Do they have a history of violence or substance abuse? Are there other workplace harassment complaints against them?
Ask open-ended, specific questions during both interviews. Questions should draw details from the employee and not lead to speculation. For instance, say “Describe your relationship with the accused” rather than asking “Have you had problems with the accused in the past?”
Eliminating Stalking in the Workplace
The National Institute of Justice notes that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men have been stalked. Some of these incidents will happen between coworkers or an employee and a client. Preparing your employees for when stalking occurs in the workplace and knowing how to carry out a workplace stalking investigation can make your organization a safer place.