17 March 2022
Stalking in the Workplace: What you need to know

Victims of stalking are typically targeted for periods of months, if not years, and subjected to a variety of intrusive, distressing and sometimes life-threatening experiences. Only a small proportion of studies have examined stalking in the workplace, and these tend to focus on the stalking of particular occupational groups, mainly health care professionals. Relatively little is known about how stalking in the workplace manifests more generally and good advice on how to tackle it is in short supply. This is a real problem as stalking affects around 1 in 5 women and about 1 in 16 men at some point during their lifetimes. Victims are monitored and harassed in all sectors of their life. This of course includes the workplace.

Stalking impacts the workplace itself as well as the victim. Peterson and colleagues conducted an excellent study in the USA in 2018. Drawing on a large and representative dataset, they found that domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking combined cost the US economy around $110 billion. When these researchers examined the short-term impact in lost productivity alone, they came up with the figure of $730 per victim.

In 2019 one of the authors of this article conducted a study on stalking in the workplace across a range of professionals. The research team was interested in two issues: (i) stalking by domestically abusive stalkers that spilled over into the workplace (so, stalking that began at home and subsequently impacted the workplace) and (ii) stalking that began in the workplace.

Some of our previous studies have been based on very large datasets. For example, we recently analyzed more than 10,000 police cases of stalking in Western Australia. This workplace stalking study was relatively small, focusing on 371 victims and survivors. The positive side of this smaller dataset is that it allowed us to analyze participants’ words in addition to producing statistics. As such, we were able to pull out a lot of detail from our lengthy survey.

So, what did we find? For more than half of those respondents who were stalked in the workplace only, by colleagues or clients, the stalking continued for more than two years.

Although the largest proportion of victims realized they were being stalked within four months of being targeted, for many respondents the realisation took place after two years. Earlier research conducted by one of the authors of this article showed that on average, targets of stalking do not tend to report their experience until around 100 incidents have taken place. By this time the stalking is entrenched. Our respondents who had been targeted by colleagues or clients were asked about the stalker’s behaviour. The most commonly experienced stalking activities were spying and monitoring, manipulation of third parties, and the physical presence of the stalker. The internet played an important role, as evidenced by reports of large volumes of e-mails, and online monitoring and harassment. The narratives provided by respondents revealed that third parties aided stalkers both wittingly and unwittingly by providing information about the victim and through gossiping and slander. Threats of harm were made towards the victim in more than a third of cases, and four victims were physically assaulted by their stalker.

The impact of stalking was significant. A large majority of respondents, 86%, reported that they were scared by their stalker’s behaviour. All but one respondent indicated that being stalked had had a negative impact on their mental health and emotional well-being, and all but six said that being stalked had negatively impacted their professional life. Half said their work performance had badly deteriorated and a quarter said they had experienced suicidal thoughts and/or made suicide attempts.

Victims were more likely to seek help and advice from family and friends and from the police than from their managers. Of those respondents who did seek help within the workplace, only around half were satisfied with the help they received. For example:

“He said that I was a "good looking girl" and that working with our client group meant that this was an occupational hazard.”

“They felt that they couldn't reprimand the stalker more than giving a warning. But that doesn't help me to feel safer at work. Now I feel I have to leave, like I'm the one being punished instead of the perpetrator.”

“Thought I was "blowing it out of proportion" took his side, made us work the same shifts.”

The results up until this point have detailed the experiences of those respondents whose stalking began in the workplace. The largest subgroup of respondents to our survey were those who had been stalked by an ex-partner. Of these, three quarters said that being stalked had directly impacted their professional life. Almost a third said they had taken sick leave as a result of being stalked, and just under a fifth told us that they had been forced to change jobs as a direct result of being stalked by their ex-partner.

We asked our respondents what victims of workplace stalking needed. Overwhelmingly, they wanted workplace stalking to be taken seriously. They wanted acknowledgement of psychological and emotional harm, for their employers to understand the risks associated with stalking, a clear plan, and advice on how to collect and retain evidence. Many victims wanted “low level” behaviours to be taken more seriously, rather than only considering the victim’s situation to be serious if there was physical injury.

So, what can we do? We know that stalking can evolve from domestic abuse situations. Workplace policies and practices are increasingly being created and extended to respond to the impact of domestic abuse within organizational contexts. This is of course a very positive development, but very few of these policies and practices recognise stalking. Stalking and domestic abuse are not the same. Stalking occurs after a relationship has ended whilst domestic abuse occurs whilst a relationship is intact. And what about stalking that begins in the workplace? Some organisations use sexual harassment or bullying policies to try and address stalking, and again, these are not the same thing as stalking.

Workplaces are easy targets for stalkers because although the victim’s residence and social routines may have changed, the place of employment will often remain the same. It is known that stalkers are adaptive and will engage in a range of activities in order to harass and gain proximity to a target and the results summarised here unsurprisingly show that this flexibility extends to work environments.

Workplaces need to provide information on how to both recognize and respond to workplace-based stalking at an early stage, to prevent cases becoming entrenched. Unambiguous information on stalking and acceptable behaviour between colleagues, and guidelines concerning and client and customer behavioural boundaries, should be written into workplace codes of conduct.

Even in those cases where management attention had failed to stop the stalking, the victims in our study appreciated the efforts made. This supports findings from broader studies of the needs of stalking victims, which have found that being taken seriously and obtaining validation are key to victim wellbeing. These broader studies also indicate that a fear of not being believed is a major barrier to reporting a stalking experience. Stalking can be difficult to recognise but it is also highly prevalent. This speaks to a need for workplaces to be educated on what constitutes stalking, how to recognize it, and how to respond. Awareness raising is a key issue. Victims of stalking need to feel safe when reporting to their managers. Management should keep an open mind and seek to obtain evidence of the stalking rather than dismissing employee concerns.

In cases where there is insufficient evidence for criminal charges, we can explain to victims that we care. We must advise victims on how to keep a record of the stalking, as this provides useful information that may be used in the future, as the case progresses.

Our respondents reported impacts of being stalked in the workplace that ranged from discomfort through to physical and sexual assault and career loss. This is obviously detrimental at both the individual and organizational levels. Given the often lengthy duration of stalking, there are opportunities for employers to monitor, respond, and aid victims in safety planning. A simple safety plan would cover the creation and completion of a system that recorded individual stalking activities, an emergency contact for the victim, temporary alarm systems, removing/reducing stalker access to the victim, and informing colleagues of the problem. In order to assess each case, the following steps are crucial: obtaining information from witnesses, an assessment of the context, risk identification, an examination of counter information, and obtaining and preserving evidence. If employers fail to respond, then there is the possibility of legal action arising from perceived failures in duty of care.