While we often encounter Hollywoodized depictions of stalking (e.g., Fatal Attraction) and read of public figures struggling to keep stalkers at bay, it is a shockingly common event that impacts millions every year. This month represents the 15th annual National Stalking Awareness Month (NSAM) and, given our work at Hillard Heintze in helping our clients prevent acts of violence, I want to bring special attention to this issue.

When I consult with experts in the field – and with clients – I emphasize repeatedly that our risk matrix would not be complete without stalking. This is particularly true in the workplace, where more and more companies have experienced an active assailant scenario or wish to prevent such an event as best they can. Many of these assailants may have targeted a particular person in that workforce or been the perpetrator of domestic violence or stalking in their personal lives.

Stalking Behavior Threat Landscape

The Violence Against Women Act — which we note lapsed at the beginning of 2019 due to the government shutdown — defines stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that [sic] would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others; or suffer substantial emotional distress.”[1]

According to the National Center for Disease Control’s 2014 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSVS), 15 percent of women have experienced stalking in their lifetime (a number that is 10 percent higher for Native American women), largely by men with whom they had intimate contact or knew.

Case Study: The Annapolis Shooter

The Annapolis, Maryland shooter at a newsroom in 2018 exhibited behaviors consistent with common warning signs of workplace violence. Five years prior to the attack, the gunman contacted a former classmate on Facebook. The seemingly innocent message escalated into vicious harassment, including urging the classmate to kill herself and contacting her workplace in attempts to have her fired.

She told an NBC News reporter that she “was afraid he could show up at any point, any place … and kill me.”[2] The Capital Gazette, the newspaper the gunman targeted, reported on the victim’s harassment claims in 2011, which the gunman never forgave.

The stalking victim’s allegations and story indicate a pattern of behaviors that could be identified as threatening. While we cannot bring back the five reporters lost in this attack, we can learn from this incident — and many others — that stalking should be taken seriously when looking to prevent workplace violence.

A Methodology for Moving Forward

In each of the cases that we analyze at Hillard Heintze, we always ask: “Is there evidence that the subject has engaged in menacing, harassing and/or stalking-type behaviors?” When our firm conducts a threat investigation, we often identify problem behaviors and more serious warning signs, such as a history of domestic violence, restraining orders or stalking.

Remember: only about half of all victims report only the stalking incident to police. Generally, those who choose not to approach authorities do not think the matter is criminal, do not believe the police can help them, or fear that reporting stalking behavior will make the stalker even more dangerous. In this way, victims are trapped in a terrible Catch-22; their lives are endangered whether or not they seek law enforcement assistance.

4 Steps Employers Can Take to Counter the Risks of Stalking and Workplace Violence

We attempt to mitigate these fears and misconceptions — at least in the workplace — by encouraging that organizations take the following actions:

  1. Assist: Provide employees with resources they can use if they are dealing with domestic violence.
  2. Mandate: Require employees with protective or restraining orders filed against individuals to share this information with the Human Resources and security function, to improve awareness of the threat environment surrounding the organization and provide greater security if needed.
  3. Educate: Train employees to recognize the signs of domestic violence. This training can help employees (1) identify if their coworker is struggling with intimate partner violence, offer assistance if necessary and, again, warn security personnel of a domestic dispute, and (2) perhaps help a victim of domestic violence to recognize abuse and seek assistance on their own.
  4. Prepare: Strengthen relationships with local law enforcement so the organization can involve them if a situation escalates and additional protection is needed for an individual or all employees.

These are just a few ways to mitigate the threat of stalking in the workplace. Let’s start this new year by expanding our understanding of this social problem and how we can protect those affected by it.

[1] Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005″. Article Sec.(3)(a)(24), Act No. H. R. 3402 of January 5, 2006 (PDF).

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/crime-courts/annapolis-paper-dropped-13-harassment-complaint-against-shooting-suspect-n887966

Learn more about developing an effective workplace violence prevention program by viewing our on-demand webinar Workplace Violence Prevention: A Critical Issues Becomes a Leading Business Priority.