Stalking in the Workplace: Your Complete Guide to Prevention and Investigation

Stalking in the Workplace: Your Complete Guide to Prevention and Investigation

Workplace stalking is a scary form of harassment. Learn how to prevent it and investigate stalking if it does happen.

Stalking in the workplace 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.

In 2021 the first National Survey on Harassment and Violence at Work in Canada was released, and it provided some enlightening statistics on the experiences over the past two years:

  • 65 per cent of respondents experienced at least one behaviour or practice of harassment and violence at work.
  • 43.9 per cent of respondents experienced at least one behaviour or practice of sexual harassment and violence.
  • 26.5 per cent of respondents surveyed experienced at least one form of work-related online harassment.

While this is a Canadian report, its findings are relevant around the globe. According to the report's authors, “Study participants clearly expressed their realities of being unprotected, unsupported, dismissed, devalued, and silenced.”

The report also highlights that the cost to an organization for leaving harassing behaviors like stalking unaddressed is incalculable. Lack of reporting continues to be an ongoing concern, and as such, it is imperative to have a plan for prevention in place.

In this guide, you'll learn the definition of stalking in the workplace, how to prevent it, and how to investigate it should a stalking situation occur.

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What is Stalking?

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 to obtain more information about the victim

Cyberstalking, stalking behaviors carried out through technology, is especially worrisome. Victims may never 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

Who Stalks?

When thinking about stalking in the workplace, it is important to recognize the different types of stalkers.

The one thing that all stalkers share is an obsession with their target, and that obsession is often present along with some other common characteristics.

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.

Another type of stalker is the erotomaniac, who believes 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.

What Constitutes Stalking in the Workplace?

Stalking in the workplace 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.

For example, in September 2022, two former eBay executives were sentenced to jail time after a coordinated campaign to stalk and harass the owners of an e-commerce blog who the executives perceived as being critical of eBay.

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.

In May 2022, a Colorado Springs police officer was arrested for stalking her husband, who also happened to be a coworker. The officer had been accessing her husband’s body cam footage and was also suspected of tracking his phone.

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.

While every stalking situation is unique, it’s important to watch for signs of stalking in the workplace.

Negative Effects of Stalking in the Workplace

Physical and psychological harm to your employee are the most obvious negative effects of stalking. However, stalking in the workplace can also cause occupational damage.

When an employee is the victim of stalking, their performance at work might wane. Because they are in distress, they may not be able to concentrate on tasks 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's a coworker) can keep them at home. They might also need time to deal with legal matters or heal from their physical or psychological wounds add to their absenteeism. As a result, victims may cut their work hours or even quit 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. Taking sides with either the victim or alleged stalker might cause a rift in the office. This is why including stalking in your harassment policy is essential.

If a case where stalking in the workplace turns violent, your organization may also suffer financially. Premises 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.

Is Stalking Harassment?

In a word, yes!

Stalking is an intense form of harassment that can occur both outside and within the workplace.

Even if the victim never has any 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.

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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. By focusing on harassment prevention, you’re prioritizing the mental health and well-being of all of your employees.

Educating managers how to deal with stalking in the workplace 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

Investigating Stalking in the Workplace

Even if you take preventive measures, stalking in the workplace can still occur. If it does, give employees who may have contact with the stalker a quick refresher on your company’s harassment policy and procedures.

Remember to stay calm. Employees may feel scared, so focusing on policy can keep the issue from escalating. 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.

Take these steps to keep the victim safe:

  • Analyze potential threats to their safety (e.g. hiding places, poorly lit areas, unsecured building access points).
  • Assign someone to them to and from their car/transit.
  • Offer to let them vary their work hours to avoid the stalker.
  • Change their work contact information (email and phone number).
  • If possible, allow them to change work stations or even work locations.
  • If they are being stalked by a client, do not allow contact between the client and the victim 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 others from reporting.

Throughout the investigation, be sure to reinforce your workplace’s harassment policies and remind employees of the consequences of breaching them. Encourage victims of stalking in the workplace to 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.

How to Deal with Stalking in the Workplace: Investigation Tips

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.

Gather as much evidence as you can. Ask the victim to save 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 isn't enough evidence to apprehend their stalker. They may also fear backlash. Reassuring employees of confidentiality makes them more likely to cooperate.

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 record the session. They may tell their story out of order or miss 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 and not lead to speculation. For instance, say "Describe your relationship with the accused" rather than "Have you had problems with the accused in the past?"

Eliminating Stalking in the Workplace

When looking at how important it is for your organization to put preventative measures in place for stalking in the workplace, consider this:

Less than one-third of all stalking victims reported their victimization to the police. This is likely because 67 per cent of stalking victims were fearful of being physically harmed or killed.

With that in mind, it’s easy to understand that stalking in the workplace can drastically impact your work environment and your employee’s ability to do their job. 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.

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To learn how case management software can improve your harassment investigations, including cases of stalking, download our free eBook.

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How Case IQ Can Help

If you’re still simply reacting to all forms of workplace harassment, you’re putting your organization, your employees, and your reputation at risk.

With Case IQ’s powerful case management software, you can analyze historic case data so you can take preventive measures, reducing future incidents.

Case IQ is a flexible and configurable solution that can be integrated with your existing reporting systems and third-party hotlines, ensuring no reports slip through the cracks.

Learn more about how Case IQ can reduce resolution time and improve your organization’s investigations here.