Stalking in the Workplace
Stalking in the workplace can occur when a coworker or someone affiliated with the company takes an unhealthy interest in someone who works there. What may start out as something innocent and maybe even welcomed at first could easily turn excessive and scary.
Although stalking is a form of sexual harassment, it is also a crime in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A person who is guilty of stalking may find that losing their job is the least of their problems.
Those who believe that they are being pursued by a stalker in the workplace should not hesitate to report the incident immediately. If the company is not addressing the matter swiftly, the employee should notify the police who will intercede on the person’s behalf to ensure their safety.
What Constitutes Stalking in the Workplace?
In general, stalking is the act of repeated and unwanted contact from one person to another, which makes the target of the attention feel threatened or uncomfortable. A person’s physical, emotional, or mental health could be impacted as well as their professional life. Stalking is general harassment, but it crosses the line into sexual harassment when the nature of the stalking turns sexual.
A stalker will use a variety of methods to remain in contact with the object of their interest, including text messages, phone calls, in-person visits, and other behaviors. Stalking in the workplace can involve a coworker; however, that is not necessarily the case. It could also involve a customer, a supervisor, the owner, or someone who delivers packages to the office.
Some examples of stalking include the following:
- Showing up at a person’s desk or office several times a day, unannounced
- Following a target, watching them, maintaining surveillance on them
- Breaking into a home/office
- Vandalizing property
- Persistent emails, telephone calls/hang-ups, letters, cards, faxes of a sexual or romantic nature
- Appearing at a person’s home, gym, or a social setting uninvited
- Defaming the person’s character by spreading rumors or filing false complaints with police or their employer
- Lying to the person’s employer, family, or friends to obtain more information about the victim
- Kidnapping, holding someone hostage, and assaulting them
- Stealing/opening personal mail to obtain personal information about a person without their consent
- Repeatedly asking for dates, after having been rejected multiple times
- Harassing family, friends, pets, colleagues, or their employer
- Filing frivolous court claims to harass or simply keep in touch with the target
- Sending unwanted gifts of any kind such as flowers, candy, toys, books, jewelry, or pictures; threatening gifts such as bullet casings, lockets of hair, bloody clothing.
- Stalking by proxy, which is convincing a person’s friends to spy on them or harass them
Another type of stalking is called cyberstalking, which is when a person initiates unwanted contact through social media in chat rooms, newsgroups, and through various social media sites.
What Does the Law Say About Stalking?
Pennsylvania and New Jersey both treat stalking as a criminal offense, although each state handles it differently. Pennsylvania defines stalking as repeated harassment that creates substantial emotional distress.
This crime in the commonwealth is classified as a first-degree misdemeanor. This degree of crime carries with it a punishment of up to five years in jail and a fine of no more than $10,000. If the person has a prior conviction for stalking the same victim, this is a third-degree felony. This level of crime carries a punishment of up to seven years in jail and a maximum fine of $15,000.
It can get complicated with New Jersey law, as generally the state treats stalking as a fourth-degree crime with a sentence of up to 18 months in prison. It can also be classified as a third-degree crime if certain circumstances exist. Those circumstances include the following:
- The person is found guilty of stalking in violation of an existing court order prohibiting the behavior.
- A person who commits a second or subsequent offense of stalking against the same victim.
- A person commits the crime of stalking while serving a prison term or while on parole or probation.
Although the law defines the parameters for a punishment for those convicted of stalking, it does provide flexibility for a judge, and there are certain factors that will impact a prison term. For instance, the relationship between the stalker and their target is relevant and could reduce the charge if the two had a prior relationship. The stalker can also claim that they did not know that their actions were harmful.
What Negative Impact Does Stalking Have on Those Targeted?
The emotional and mental toll on a person who has been targeted by a stalker is incalculable. Victims might have difficulty eating or sleeping given their fear that their stalker could show up unannounced anywhere at any time.
Workplace stalking may also have a negative impact on the occupational habits of the person involved as well. In general, they will be less productive than they were before. Primarily because they are stressed and not sleeping well, they will be easily distracted and have a difficult time concentrating at work.
In addition, if their stalker is consistently calling them on the phone, the person will be fielding distracting phone calls rather than doing their job. Those who are being stalked may also find themselves taking extra days off work to cope with the situation, meaning their work is not getting done or someone will have to cover for them.
There are other reasons why an employee’s time away from work could increase. They could be afraid to leave the house or tending to legal matters pertaining to the stalking incident. It could also be that the stalker is a coworker, and they are trying to avoid that person.
The situation can also cause problems throughout the office as tensions may arise among coworkers. For instance, if the stalker is a fellow employee, there will be those in the office who will not believe an accusation that the person is a stalker and assume the other person is lying about it. Others might believe it. In either case, an office could become divided over which side they believe.
What Responsibilities Does the Employer Have to Prevent Stalking?
An employer is responsible for establishing a safe environment for all their workers. That means they must not feel threatened by other coworkers or intimidated by them as well. No one can predict the reaction a person will have to another, which is why it is important for a company to have policies and procedures in place that provide a clear blueprint as to how someone can report suspicious activity in a safe and potentially anonymous way.
If there is a stalking incident that occurs, it is up to the manager to perform a risk assessment of the people involved and create an individualized safety plan for each. This could involve shifting a person’s hours, relocating their desk, or having them work from home. Whatever the plan, it should be one that a manager discusses with their human resources department and the employee involved.
A manager should also take note of any unsafe environments around the office such as poorly lit areas. They should also inform the police of the situation and have someone escort the person to their car if necessary.
When an accusation is levied against a coworker for stalking, this may place the manager in a difficult situation. However, it is the manager’s responsibility to work with their company’s human resources department to investigate the accusation to determine the facts of the situation. The manager must be respectful of both sides and not rush to any judgments. They should not assume the accuser is correct, or dismiss the notion of the other being a stalker because they are a good employee or loyal colleague. A manager should be sensitive to the accuser’s feelings and not attempt to mediate the situation, as further interaction between the two could cause additional trauma.
In the end, if legal proceedings are initiated against one of the two individuals for their role in the alleged stalking, the manager should take appropriate disciplinary action at work as well. This could mean a suspension or even a termination of employment depending on the facts of the case.
How can Employers Prevent Stalking in the Workplace?
No one knows who has the potential to become a stalker; however, a company can develop policies and procures that will make it easier for those targeted by stalkers to report these incidents. Having a policy in place may discourage a person from engaging in behavior that could make someone feel uncomfortable.
The negative impact of stalking can be alleviated when employees know what they must do if they encounter the situation and if they will believe they have the tools to protect themselves. Steps companies can take include these measures:
- Putting together a strong policy that the company will enforce about what it considers inappropriate contact and harassment at work.
- There should be a detailed procedure in place for employees who are dealing with aggressive coworkers for them to report suspicious behavior and critical incidents.
- The policy should be reviewed and updated routinely.
- Those who feel targeted by a stalker should feel supported and protected, so the company should have a system in place that will provide that much-needed support should an incident occur.
- Provide regular education to management and employees about the dangers of bullying and stalking and what they should do when they encounter those situations.
It is essential that a company create an environment for employees in which they feel confident to raise a concern about an incident without fear of judgement or reprisal. If an employee reports an incident that turns out to be a trivial matter, they should praise the employee for their vigilance and not criticize them for wasting time.
Although it is important for employees to feel safe and protected, it is also important that the atmosphere and actual office building be safe as well. To that end, there are additional precautions that management and employers should take to ensure the protection of the employees. Those precautions include the following:
- Setting up security cameras throughout the office and at secure entrances
- Giving employees flexible working hours
- Keeping security guards and receptionists informed about any potential stalking situations, including a photo, name, and description of a stalker
- Prohibiting an employee from giving out personal information about another employee such as phone numbers, work hours, and emails
- Sharing information about organizations equipped to support those targeted by stalkers or harassers
- Reminders of confidentiality of harassment reports
- Creating a judgment-free workplace environment
Providing visual and simple safety measures for employees will ensure them that they are safe at work. It also demonstrates that they can feel comfortable going to management with a problem and they will not be turned away or ridiculed for lodging their complaint.
Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Protect Those Targeted by Stalkers
If you have been targeted by a stalker, it can be a scary and stressful time, especially if that stalker happens to be a coworker. If your employer is not helping and you fear the situation could get out of hand quickly, the Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. can intercede on your behalf. We will step in and ensure that the proper authorities are notified, and pursue justice for this harrowing experience. You can stop living in fear. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey, as well as New York.