A stalker at work - what can we do?
Why would an employer offer personal protection training to an individual employee?
At Dynamis we can work with employers to support an employee who is being stalked or harassed by someone who could turn up in the workplace (a stalker at work), leveraging our specialist trainers’ knowledge of the aspects of personal security, the law, the psychology of violence and self-protection. This work can enhance confidence, help to manage fear, and mitigate the risks of the situation having an adverse outcome.
A situation that may begin in an employee’s personal life can spill over into their professional life - a stalker at work
For example, we recently worked with a valued employee from a large corporation who was being threatened, intimidated and stalked. Her car had been vandalised and she had received threatening phone calls and text messages. The actions of the perpetrator responsible were quite orchestrated - for example they paid a third party to vandalise the woman’s car. She felt very unsafe and the people she lived with - her family - felt very unsafe both for her and for themselves.
The woman’s employer became aware of the situation when the stalker turned up at her workplace.
That’s when the employer got involved; not only because of their statutory duties under health and safety law but also because they saw the effects of the situation on the individual. They really wanted to help her to be safe and to feel safe, even though there was the risk of the stalker turning up at work.
The Health and Safety Executive recognises harassment and stalking as an issue (see PDF guidance):
"Any form of harassment and violence against workers, whether committed by co-workers, managers or third-parties, is unacceptable. It breaches ethical standards, as well as affecting the physical and psychological health of those affected. Yet according to the 2006/07 British Crime Survey (BCS), there were an estimated 684,000 workplace incidents, comprising 288,000 assaults and 397,000 threats of violence. Tolerance, diversity, dignity and respect are benchmarks for business success, so it is in employers’ interests to identify and address the threat or occurrence of workplace harassment and violence. But employers also have legal duties to protect the health and safety of all their workers, so failure to deal with and take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and violence will undermine business performance and could be unlawful."
Support is available 1 2 3, however it is often understandably limited to advice, listening and guidance on reporting. In this article, we describe self-protection training interventions for the individual which can build capacity and resilience.
What behaviour counts as stalking?
Health and Safety issues of a stalker at work
If an employee is being pursued by someone, and it becomes a foreseeable risk that a confrontation could happen in the place of work, then this triggers a number of duties the employer has under health and safety law and regulations. Chief amongst those duties is the need to carry out a formal documented risk assessment (Reg 3), which will methodically result in a group of control measures to address the risks which have been identified - for example, where the perpetrator might encounter the worker, such as in the car park, or inside her office building. Training in personal protection tactics could be one of the control measures suggested, to mitigate and reduce the ultimate risk of the target person being physically attacked at work.
Having reviewed their options and the kinds of training provision available, the employer commissioned Dynamis to provide a programme of private sessions in personal protection for their employee with one of our professional and qualified trainers, who are specialists in the field of confrontation management and personal safety. Much of the content was physical training in self-protection, but the employee also learned about threat detection, situational awareness and fear management.
Four warning signs that behaviour is 'stalking':
What are the challenges for people who are being stalked and harassed?
Often with stalking cases, you can see that there is a ‘my word versus theirs’ situation. Stalking is covert by its very nature. If somebody is just standing around down a street, they have every right to be there. When challenged they can just say, “I’m waiting for a taxi.” It’s difficult for the authorities to gather evidence and to start developing a prosecution case.
Police too, may not do enough about complaints, even with evidence and the support they give.
Then, even if a case goes to court there’s no guarantee that the perpetrator of the stalking will stop.
A trainer once worked with his client - a victim of harassment - who moved house several times to get away from a stalker, but he repeatedly found out where she was living. The perpetrator even put a tracker on her vehicle and subsequently tracked her to her home, turning up in the middle of the night in her garden. In that case, there were several court prosecutions that didn't amount to anything, even though police found the tracker on her car and the woman had video evidence of him being in her garden at three o'clock in the morning.
In the personal protection sessions that the trainer delivered with her, it was like “she’d just come back from a war zone” - she was suffering with a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the repeated and constant stress of being pursued and watched by this person.
Eventually that client moved to another country to get away from her stalker. That case is an example of how invasive, intrusive and distruptive having a stalker can be for people.
What’s the most important thing someone who is being harassed or stalked should know?
Working with people who are being stalked and harrassed is challenging because there is real potential of physical harm to the person who is the target. We can never be sure if one day the perpetrator could turn routine surveillance of the person into outright confrontation and the situation could become physically dangerous.
Because of this, it is vital for the person being targeted to realise the importance of being your own first responder, rather than relying on the police or other services. In all our personal protection training, Dynamis emphasises ‘don't outsource your safety to anyone else.’
If one day the worst happens and a stalker attacks, you need to have the mindset and the capability to do what you need to do to to effectively protect yourself. You’ve got to be ready to ‘be your own bodyguard’.
What personal protection training do people who are being stalked or harassed need?
In cases of harassment or stalking, there are particular needs which any personal protection training should address.
A Dynamis course is always planned for the context and needs of the learner or learners. Every personal protection course we teach includes the law and the use of reasonable force as well as non-escalation and de-escalation strategies. For someone who is being stalked, content around the psychology of situational awareness, fear management and particular defensive tactics become particularly important.
Dynamis delivers its learning objectives through a scenario-driven approach. Training scenarios for someone who is being stalked might include what to do if the stalker were to break into their home, or how to respond if they are suddenly surprised by the stalker on the street.
Some of these scenarios will be planned before the training when we complete a detailed training needs analysis with the client. We also work with our learners during the training itself to integrate their real-life experiences into the scenarios. This helps them embed and encode their learning. It also increases the likelihood of successful outcomes in real life situations.
How can fear management and breathing techniques help people who are being stalked or harassed?
It’s really challenging for people who are being stalked and harassed to live calmly and not feel like they must constantly look over their shoulder. Fear and safety concerns can affect every part of the person’s life.
We help people address their fear during personal protection training by exploring what fear is, how it works and how to harness it. Dynamis highly recommends ‘The Gift of Fear’ by Gavin de Becker. Amongst many other lessons, that book (and the FREE online course) helps us dig into the ‘why’ questions - why would I fight if a stalker attacked me? Why would I run away rather than fight? If I'm going to pick up an improvised weapon, why? Am I capable of doing that?
This is the thinking side of fear management - the emotional and psychological preparation that is fundamental to being effective in the decisive moment. The answers to these questions will be different for different people. However what’s common is that those who know their answer - and can bring it to mind if they are attacked - are more likely to defend themselves effectively. They are also quicker to recover afterwards.
Breath work is another aspect of fear management we teach. We look at how breathing affects the sympathetic nervous system (which relates to sometimes called the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response) and how breathing can be trained so the person has more control of their body at crucial moments. For example, we might teach them how to take control of their breath to ‘switch on’ if a stalker breaks into their home, so they will have some adrenaline in their system to help them deal with the situation.
Other breathing techniques help people slow down and regain control if a threat has made their heart rate shoot up and their breathing has become shallow, or they are hyperventilating.
Elements of training for a person dealing with a stalker at work
Training in personal protection for the average person (a person who may have to use force, but not as part of an ‘occupational’ situation) should include all of these elements:
- Communication skills for defusing aggression
- The assailant’s psychology of victim-selection and how to influence it
- Threat detection and situational awareness
- Fear management and Breathing techniques
- Distances, Reaction Times, Escape Route Selection
- Instinctive protection and how to mitigate injury if attacked
- Engagement and Escape Tactics for how to get away
- The principles of law and how it applies to the person’s most likely scenarios
How can organisations support an employee who is being stalked or harassed at work?
It’s important to start with the employer’s duty of care.
Section 7 of the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 states that it is the duty of every employee while at work “to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions”
If an employee is being stalked or harassed and the stalker shows up at the workplace, a personal problem has now become an organisational problem too. There are obvious foreseeable risks associated with such an eventuality. If a stalker were to harm an employee whilst at work, the case can be made that the employer failed in their duty to take reasonable care of the employee’s health and safety.
It’s important at this stage not to jump right in to sourcing training. Legally there needs to be an audit trail that documents how your organisation comes to the decision that training is necessary. So management should first work as a team to draw up a documented risk assessment that:
- identifies the hazards associated with harassment and stalking of an employee;
- rates the risks of these hazards;
- and states how the risk of each hazard will be eliminated, reduced, isolated or controlled.
Personal protection training may well be an appropriate control measure to reduce the risks associated with harassment or stalking. Managers should then look at a number of personal protection training programmes and consider carefully which type is the best fit for the employee and organisation.
It’s also important to remember that personal protection training is only one control measure in a hierarchy of controls - it shouldn’t be considered the ‘silver bullet’ on the risk assessment which will deal with all harassment and stalking issues. Other control interventions here could include access-control to the person’s office building or improving visibility and security of the car park at their office building, for example.
Policy and procedures dealing with harassment and/or stalking of employees should be drawn up to reflect the risk assessment, which will demonstrate how a hierarchy of control measures has been put in place to mitigate and reduce the risks that the perpetrator will actually gain access to the person. This will reduce the chance that any physical self-protection tactics will need to be used and therefore, keep everyone in the workplace safer, considering the difficulty of these stalking cases.
Our thanks to senior trainer Zeb Glover for his input and expertise in helping our staff writer Vanessa to create this article.
Dynamis is a specialist provider of advice, training and guidance on workplace violence prevention and personal safety training. Focussing on elements of self-protection for individuals and teams, we are standing by to assist organisations who face the issue of stalking or harrassment of their employees with the legal, health and safety, operational and practical aspects of keeping everyone in the workplace safe from this type of violence and aggression.