Last reviewed 20 April 2015
Professor Craig Jackson looks at stalking behaviours and asks if workplaces can take reasonable precautions for this unusual, devastating, and sometimes deadly workplace phenomenon.
Stalking is now a specific form of criminal offence and a recognised social problem. According to the British Crime Survey, approximately 20% of females and 10% of males receive unwanted stalking behaviours over the course of their lives, and this figure increases annually. So what do we know about obsessional and intimidating behaviour and how it can occur in the workplace? What are the impacts for those workers who become the victims of stalkers who target them at work?
What is stalking?
Put simply, stalking is unwanted and unwarranted continued attention and contact from the perpetrator to the victim, which results in distress or fear. This is often done when the perpetrator is obsessed or fixated with the victim. They may not always be aware of the distress they cause and, in some cases, because of their delusional beliefs, the perpetrators believe they are helping the victim or making them feel important. Mostly, however, stalkers are acutely aware of the damage they cause.
Stalking can have a huge impact on the victims, especially if the stalking occurs in both domestic and workplace spheres. It can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety, and develop into physical health problems, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can also have an impact on the victim’s partner and family members.
Initially, many victims do not report early-stage stalking incidents to managers, for fear they may be judged as being somehow responsible and because they do not want to appear to cause a “fuss” at work. However, as the cumulative impact of stalking progresses, behavioural and psychological changes within the victim may make their situation more noticeable, eg poor time-keeping, increased number of sickness absence spells, poor concentration or performance at work, and increased GP/healthcare appointments. Recognising such behavioural difficulties may assist employers in their duty to help the victim as soon as possible. Many stalking victims leave employment as a consequence, not just because of health-related problems, but as a way of trying to avoid being stalked altogether.
The following legislation applies in the UK.
England and Wales: Protection from Harassment Act 1997, amended by the Protection of Freedom Act 2012.
Scotland: s.39 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.
Northern Ireland: Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.
Some stalkers can of course be colleagues of the victim, or even customers/clients who have come into some form of contact. A smaller number of stalkers choose a victim in a particular workplace just because the job gives them easy access, such as telephonists or receptionists. Not all workplace stalkers have the same “psychopathology”, as outlined below, and there is some evidence to suggest there can be a typology of stalking.
Rejected stalker: arises from the breakdown of a relationship. They are usually a former sexual partner of the victim and this appears to be the biggest single typology.
Resentful stalker: arises from a perceived mistreatment or humiliation, with the power over the victim itself seen as “settling the score”. They often present themselves as the victim.
Intimacy-seeking stalker: arises from a lack of close relationships and intimacy — the victims become “fantasy” figures, and these desires can be the result of some severe mental health problems/psychosis (eg erotomanic delusion).
Incompetent suitor: arises from loneliness but does not seek intimate relationships, merely short-term sexual relationships. There is occasional overlap with mild learning disability or cognitive impairments on behalf of the stalker.
Predatory stalker: arises in the context of deviant sexual practices and interest in the victim. The stalking can be gratifying and instrumental at the same time, becomes a way of gaining pleasure (eg voyeurism), and can also help provide information about the victim.
Research generally shows that 90% of stalkers are male and about 80% of victims are female, and that females are significantly more likely to be stalked by a current or former partner. Most victims are females who are harassed by men wishing to establish or re-establish a relationship, eg ex-husbands/partners who will not accept the ending of a relationship and who may also seek revenge for “rejection” constitute the largest single group of stalkers (approximately 40%). Further, almost half of stalkers present themselves at their victim’s workplace, creating not only risks for the victims but for other colleagues who may interact with the stalker, as well as other members of the public who may legitimately be at the premises.
There are dozens of different actions that stalkers take to unnerve their victims, ranging from personal visits to workplaces through to virtual contact via social media, and through a proxy (eg ordering products to be delivered to the victim). These can include:
telephone calls (silent calls or pleading/angry/threatening conversations)
following or giving the impression the victim has been followed
retrieving personal information/details (physically or online)
false complaints to employers
false legal claims
criminal damage (home/work/vehicle)
sending unsolicited gifts
signing the victim up for services they do not want
excessive contact (letter writing/emails/text messages), often over short periods of time
social network abuse
visiting the workplace
In short, being stalked may impact upon a victim’s ability to work in a variety of ways. Initially, stalking behaviours can often severely directly interfere with their ability to leave their home and get to work regularly (extreme methods include frightening the victim to stay home through threatening emails, messages or phone calls, through to vandalising their car or making the commute difficult).
Secondly, the stalker can make the workplace appear to be unsafe for the victim by targeting his/her messages to the workplace rather than just the victim’s home. By threatening to appear at the workplace (at any time) the stalker gives the workplace an additional air of unpredictability. Thirdly, the psychological impacts reduce the overall workability of the victim, making them anxious, forgetful, unable to concentrate, and possibly disorganised.
Workplace stalking policy
Stalking policies should be in place to minimise the risk to all those who could potentially be involved, keep the victim working while being stalked if they so wish, and support the victim if they need time off work (due to the effects outlined above, as well as for legal matters). Such policies should also make it clear that employees who engage in stalking behaviours themselves will be investigated, and disciplinary action will be taken against any such employee if criminal procedures are initiated.
Policies should take the position that victims are not to be blamed for being stalked, acknowledge factors that can make victims more or less vulnerable, and implement actions that can help make victims increase their resilience. Management should take a discreet approach and try to ascertain details with an open-ended, non-judgmental and non-threatening approach. Assuring the victim that they will be believed and taken seriously is important, as it is the fear of this not happening that prevents many victims from reporting the stalking.
All disclosures should be noted — no matter how bizarre or unbelievable they may initially sound — and the confidentiality of such should be reiterated to the victim. It is worth considering having a senior management figure within the organisation who is trained in the area, so they can support any such victims with some level of expertise.
Assessing any risks to the victim should be a sensible and practical aspect of the policy, as should presenting the victim with a personal safety policy. This risk assessment should also be widened to include the other employees who may have a risk of exposure to the stalker. Adjustments to working can include:
improving security, lighting and the general ergonomic safety of the workplace
provision of personal attack alarms
flexi-time working and varied start/finish times
close escorting of staff to vehicles/transport
making other staff aware of the situation, where necessary, to aid increased vigilance
ensuring staff take precautions, eg screening phone calls and scrutinising workplace visitors
ensuring the victim knows to immediately report any stalking phone calls to management and document them
if a restraining order prohibits the stalker from the workplace, calling the police immediately should they appear
ensuring that staff do not give out any information such as days or hours of work, or personal phone numbers.
There is limited research on the impact that stalking makes to an individual’s ability to work, but it is evident that victims suffer from many emotional symptoms, including depression, anxiety and PTSD. They may also suffer from self-loathing, blame, shame, guilt, embarrassment, lowered self-esteem, and feel isolation from others. Such symptoms would no doubt be worsened if employment was also lost as a consequence of being stalked. Managers who understand the potential consequences can more ably assist employee victims, and potentially minimise any short-term and long-term harm inflicted upon the victim.