In an age where people’s personal details are readily accessible by others, it has become increasingly easy for would-be stalkers to access personal information and use it to target individuals. In the majority of cases, a previous connection exists between stalker and victim, be it a longstanding or one-off acquaintance, lending itself to the working environment: the National Stalking Helpline notes that 80 per cent of those they speak to have had previous contact with their stalker.
Although stalking in the workplace represents a smaller proportion of these cases, it is still something HR managers should be vigilant of. Such activity can have a serious impact on employee wellbeing, and raise doubts over personal safety while in a working environment. Any circumstances that make an employee feel unsafe or threatened should be a priority issue, and resolved correctly. In more extreme cases, companies may need to call in counter-stalking professionals or psychologists to help identify who the responsible colleague is, and introduce extra measures to protect victims. The most fundamental thing for businesses is to understand how to spot when harassment is taking place, to identify the most efficient and safest course of action to maintain employee safety and deal with guilty parties.
Company responsibility not only plays a part at a pastoral level, but at a legal one too. Generally, employers are responsible for the acts of their workers, and can be held vicariously liable for stalking or harassment under Section 3 of the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act if a court finds they have not dealt appropriately with incidents. The act allows employees to undertake civil proceedings against an employer if they have failed to protect staff and eradicate instances of harassment. In addition, employers’ duty of care to staff requires them to ensure a threat-free working environment. Failing in this duty can be considered a breach of contract, and employees suffering harassment or stalking can resign from their position and claim constructive dismissal.
To prevent these eventualities, managers should first be alert to the causes and traits particular to workplace stalking to identify when it may be taking place. From the work at Subrosa Group that we have done with office managers, cases of workplace stalking are often provoked by changes in the office environment; these can range from individuals being turned down for promotions and in-office relationships ending, to employees being disciplined. Stalking of colleagues typically manifests itself in the form of threatening or explicit emails, being followed outside of the office and receiving suspicious calls on personal and work phones.
Most HR managers will have clear policies that set out what constitutes harassment and how it should be dealt with, both by senior managers and those experiencing it; this should be communicated clearly to all personnel, setting out who employees can come to to report harassment. The key when alleged stalking or harassment by a colleague is first brought to HR’s attention is to take it seriously and investigate fully. To assess the level of seriousness involved, managers should ascertain whether harassment has been sustained and directed at one colleague, where it has occurred and whether it has also filtered outside of the office and working hours.
Close contact within an office environment means that colleagues quickly learn each others’ routines, travel routes and common haunts. In general this shared information represents no threat, as is also the case with the kind of personal details companies keep that can be accessed by other employees. However, it is this information that can be utilised by individuals to stalk colleagues more closely than would otherwise be possible. This should be taken into account by both managers and victims when dealing with stalkers, in order to ascertain what personal details the company holds that a stalker may have obtained. Employees should be aware of data protection regulations, in order to know what personal details other individuals are and are not entitled to. In the case of employees being stalked by clients, internal policies about the sharing of details should also be highlighted, to avoid private details being handed over.
The level of personal knowledge that a stalker can access about a colleague’s life can cause not only major distress but also disruption to their normal routine. It is not uncommon for victims to have to change their routes home to avoid being followed, and this is a key measure we implement if stalking escalates to eliminate the predictability of victims’ movements and the places they often travel to. Such changes should be purely temporary measures to make victims safer in going about their lives while the situation is being dealt with by police or stalking specialists – no employee should be obliged to drastically change their routines for any prolonged period as a result of stalking.
In cases of overt harassment of colleagues, managers should take swift corrective action that reflects a zero tolerance approach to such activity and eliminates any threats the victim is subject to. To assist in any investigations, victims have a part to play by gathering evidence against their stalker. No employee should suffer in silence, and managers should make clear that any form of harassment be reported as early as possible to allow for support and advice to be provided. This should involve keeping a detailed log of any harassment experienced however trivial it may seem, including contact via phone call, text, email and social media.
Stalking campaigns often also involve messages and gifts being sent which can be distressing to victims, and the temptation is often to distance oneself from any threat felt by disposing of them or “fighting back” in some form. Employers should however encourage all digital and physical material to be kept as it forms strong evidence if a police investigation is required or the matter is taken to court. Stalkers often act to illicit a response from their victim; while it is difficult not to respond to any form of harassment, it can and often prolongs the harassment and employees should be made aware of this.
Although they are generally rarer in cases of workplace stalking, it is possible for employees to not know who is targeting them, especially in larger offices and organisations. At this point, employers will often need external expertise, due to the complications anonymity creates. This is the most sophisticated side of counter-stalking. Understanding what motivates different types of stalker is key to understanding their behaviour, which is where specialist psychological examinations come into play. Compiling all forms of contact made by a stalker forms a profile of them, which can be analysed psychologically by experts to track and predict how they act. The aim of these more advanced techniques is to help protect the victim, assess the level of danger the harasser represents, and ultimately identify and stop them. In cases that we have worked on, profiling has been essential to identifying where additional measures have been necessary to ensure victims’ security.
The most effective policies on workplace harassment are combined with an understanding of how to respond as a business if an employee is targeted by a stalker. This knowledge means that managers can provide genuine support to resolve threatening behaviour, as well as being aware of what circumstances may call for external expertise to be brought in.
Key advice for dealing with workplace stalking and harassment:
- Learn the common causes for harassment: changes at work that may prompt obsession with or bitterness towards colleagues
- Look out for tell-tale signs: unusual contact via phone and computers, gifts being sent and staff being followed in and out of the work environment
- Ensure harassment policies are clearly communicate to employees
- Take any alleged harassment seriously; gather all possible detail to assess best resolution
- If employees are being followed, recommend they change routes and routines
- Gather all evidence, including messages, calls, gifts and online contact
- Do not respond to stalker contact, which can prolong harassment
- Recognise when external expertise may be needed, including anonymous stalking and in the case of violence or serious threats
Niall Burns, managing director and a counter-stalking specialist at Subrosa Group