Stalking in the Workplace Sometimes Ignored by HR

Workplace-violence policies sometimes don't address the difficulties involved when employees are stalked. A recent study found that one in five Texans had been stalked -- with most of the victims under the age of 34 and either students or part-time workers.

Monday, April 2, 2007
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Companies pride themselves on helping employees with personal problems -- from long-term illness to substance abuse. But what happens when a worker is being stalked?

Stalking happens more often than we realize, and the victims are not just celebrities. When TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a fan in 1989, California became the first state to make stalking a crime; today, every state has anti-stalking laws. And a new study says that one of five Texans surveyed in 2006 had been the victim of a stalker during a two-year period.

The telephone survey of 701 randomly selected Texans was conducted by the Crime Victims' Institute at the Criminal Justice Center of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Most stalking victims in the survey were under the age of 34, and were students or part-time employees.

"The fact that they are part time is more related to their age," says Glen Kercher, author of the study and director of the institute.

"Obviously, stalking does occur in the workplace," he says. "Employees are stalked in the workplace, by former and current lovers. ... In some cases [it could be] a supervisor, or a co-worker who feels threatened because [the victim] is getting more notice and recognition."  

Who is at risk? Almost as many men as women reported being stalked. Forty-seven percent of the male victims were stalked by other men; 59 percent of the women were stalked by men. Most of the victims were never married.

Not surprisingly, more than half the victims knew their stalkers, and the most common suspected motive was jealousy. The most frequent incidents were repeated telephone calls or hang-ups, or having items stolen from the house, car or workplace. Victims also reported threatening calls, being spied on at home, having their cars tampered with, or finding a stalker waiting at home or work.

The survey defined stalking as deliberate, but wanted, acts by a person to get attention from an individual. Sometimes those acts include behavior or comments that are harassing or threaten injury to a person, a person's family or a person's property.

Many corporate HR departments have "workplace violence" policies and teams in place to handle stalking and threats, says Timothy Horner, managing director in the Kroll Consulting Group in New York, which works with corporations on mitigating risk.

However, employers usually won't get involved if the incidents happen outside work -- unless the stalker is a co-worker or the victim's work suffers, says Anita Madison, vice president for training and consulting at CompPsych Corp., a Chicago-based provider of employee-assistance programs.

"If [the employee] says, 'This guy I met at the bar the other night keeps calling,' " the company won't get involved, says Madison. But the minute he calls the office, that makes it the boss's business.

"I have had employers who call and say an [employee's] ex-boyfriend continues to call the office and is creating a disturbance," Madison says. The employer has the right to tell them not to call, especially if the company has a "no personal calls" policy. Some companies will also have security officers escort people to their cars.

If the stalker is a co-worker, the situation falls under "workplace violence" and possibly even harassment, Madison said.

And if the stalking affects a worker's performance, the employee should be encouraged to contact the EAP for guidance, including whether to get a restraining order.

While stalking incidents "are very common things to handle," says Horner, he notes that "each case is different. Every phone call is different; they have different nuances. ...There's not a cookie-cutter approach."

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Horner distinguishes between a "threat," which is often a random e-mail or phone call, and actual stalking, which is a crime that involves a pattern of behavior.

The first step in an investigation is to identify the person making the threat. An e-mail that says "I'm going to kill you" is terrifying to a victim, says Horner, but "we get anonymous e-mails that we find out were generated by someone with no means of going to the victim. We find it's been sent to 50 other people."     The next step is to look at "what type of boundaries are crossed," Horner said. An e-mail is one boundary, showing up at the work place is another. Then an employer should develop an "intervention strategy" involving internal and external security

Every HR department should "have a workplace-violence team in place and the structure to handle [situations]," Horner says. "Usually a workplace-violence issue impacts the whole workplace. It's a safety issue for everyone in the environment." 

The good news is that stalking usually stops within two months, while national statistics suggest that only 5 percent of stalkers turn lethal.

"We need to educate employers about the nature of stalking and things to look for. It's important that victims have the support from employers," says Kercher. Another reason companies should keep their eyes and ears open is liability. "The victim can claim it's not a safe work environment."







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