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We typically envision stalking at work as comprised of violent acts, potentially fatal occurrences in which an enraged ex-lover (or spouse) enacts a violent assault in the victim’s place of employment. A more insidious, pervasive, and psychologically damaging form of workplace harassment may also be instigated by an institution’s own employees. Stalking is considered 

“…a crime of obsession, and is often associated with different types of psychopathology, including psychosis and severe personality disorders. Depending on the stalker, behavior may range from overtly aggressive threats and actions, to repeated phone calls, letters, or approaches. Stalking harassment may go on for years, causing the victim to exist in a constant state of stress and fear.” 

Stalking at work may be an outgrowth of benevolent sexism, in which paternalism is demonstrated in extending protection to lower ranking individuals in the patronizing guise of over-support [provided they fulfill what is considered their requisite gender role – e.g., deference, unquestioned acceptance of the dominant coalition’s stance on topics, and a tendency not to outshine more senior peers in terms of achievement]. In “Partner stalking: How women respond, cope, and survive,” the author notes:

“Women’s past or current relationship to their stalker can obstruct their realization that their partner’s behavior is problematic. This often meant that women initially mistook intrusive and controlling aspects of their partner’s behavior for attentiveness, protectiveness, and within the realm of normal relationship behavior.”

The basis of stalking is obsession, power, and control, a quest that is more easily accomplished when the stalker at work is senior in rank to the object of his/her pursuit. Because stalkers may misconstrue workplace functions and meetings within one’s discipline as a substitute for dates, the “love obsessional” stalker, or one who assumes that he/she has a relationship with the victim, may become progressive in the type of harassing behavior that he/she displays. Stalkers may “test” the waters with behavior such as incessant phone calls: Stalkers think constantly about the object of their pursuit. They telephone, fax, text, and e-mail. They physically chase. This is obsession” (Saunders & Michaud, 2008). The more sophisticated stalkers are careful not to leave a message trail; they may instead choose to call a victim’s home multiple times per day, hanging up each time until someone responds. “…phone calls were the most prevalent and frequent stalking behavior; he had to be in constant contact with me – like ‘having a bell on me.’” Partner stalking: How women respond, cope, and survive,”

Stalker traits include the following [from http://www.esia.net/Common_Traits_of_Stalkers.htm]

Traits

  • Obsessive personality
  • Above average intelligence
  • Mean streak
  • No or few personal relationships
  • Lack of embarrassment or discomfort at actions
  • Low self esteem
  • Sociopathic thinking
  • Recent death of a parent or partner

Behaviors

  • Won’t take no for an answer; doesn’t care if the victim is uncomfortable with his actions
  • Constantly talks about the victim – e.g., to peers, co-workers, and friends
  • Makes unwarranted assumptions (e.g., assumes the victim wants to be with him/her at organizational events)
  • Attempts to make the victim feel like he/she is a possession, and an entitlement of rank and privilege
  • Becomes jealous when the victim speaks to someone he/she considers a potential rival; accuses him/her of having a sexual relationship with this person
  • Asks intrusive, inappropriate questions (e.g., about the victim’s personal finances, love life, home ownership, physical condition)
  • Directs the victim not to speak to the boss if he/she is having a problem with his/her behavior
  • Makes implicit threats – implies that there will be trouble if anyone makes him/her angry. Tells the victim he/she is connected to powerful persons within the organization
  • Tells the victim that he/she looks at his/her picture on the internet
  • Makes inappropriate remarks to the victim regarding his/her appearance – if the stalking escalates, these remarks may progress into sexual innuendo and propositions
  • Learns the victim’s schedule so that he/she can linger in the hallway near his/her office
  • Goes out of his/her way to learn where the victim lives – [note that phone calls may be a precursor to physical stalking, or drive bys in which the stalker tries to engage the victim or the victim ‘s family members in conversation through continual neighborhood visits]
  • Uses the telephone to says things to the victim he/she wouldn’t dare to say in front of other people
  • Asks the victim if he/she would mind if he/she moved into his/her neighborhood
  • Displays rage in the form of slander and malicious gossip if the victim tries to extricate him/herself from the association. This type of verbal assault is particularly damaging to someone who is less senior in the ranks, and whose reputation is dependent on the interpretation of senior individuals. Not having a formal power base, or an “old X network” on which to rely, women are particularly reticent to counter these attacks, or to stop the abuse. Their fear of retribution and lack of protection can overpower a victim’s fear of losing her sanity. As Hornstein (1996) notes in “Brutal bosses and their Prey,” a female executive was reluctant to say no too forcefully to a boss who desired after dinner entertainment at her expense.

Stalking is a form of psychological abuse that can result in the vicgtims experiencing fear and safety concerns, as well as symptoms of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. According to The Fact Sheet on Stalking, twenty six percent of stalking victims lost time from work as a result of their victimization, and seven percent never returned to their jobs. In a recent survey, the most frequently reported response to stalking was anger/annoyance (72 percent). Others reported fear (42 percent), anxiety (26.8 percent), helplessness (10 percent), and depression (10 percent). In the book Whisper of Fear, the authors report that “One in twelve women and one in forty five men will be stalked in their lifetimes.”

The purpose of a stalker’s constant, behind the scenes harassment is to unhinge the victim from his/her moorings, so that he/she is more malleable and at the same time less credible – as evidenced by anxious, paranoid, and skittish behavior. Stalking is incessant intrusion in which the stalker is consumed with images of his/her victim, feeding his/her fantasy relationship by looking at his/her pictures, driving past his/her house, lingering in the halls near his/her office, and discerning his/her relational patterns – he/she is an ever present watchful eye that seeks to be a permanent and pervasive feature of the target’s life.
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References 

Hornstein, H. (1996). Brutal bosses and their prey: How to identify and overcome abuse in the workplace. New York, NY: Riverbend Books. 

Saunders, R. B., & Michaud, S. G. (2008). Whisper of fear: the true story of the prosecutor who stalks the stalkers. New York: Penguin Group.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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