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Sensitive content warning: This article discusses domestic violence.
“I was hunted.” This chilling statement is how Angie Thompson, survivor and advocate, describes what it felt like to be stalked, threatened, and violently attacked by her now incarcerated ex-husband, convicted of murder.
I listened to Angie speak these words at a stalking and domestic violence (DV) awareness event hosted by the DV shelter where I work. I also spoke with several domestic violence advocates to learn about stalking in the workplace.
Angie’s story is featured in episode one of the Netflix show, “I Am A Stalker,” where she speaks about her experiences. Throughout the awareness event, especially as Angie spoke, I was struck by how commonplace and yet rarely discussed stalking in the workplace is.
Beyond the human suffering costs of stalking, work days lost due to intimate partner violence and stalking, over the victim’s lifetimes, cost an estimated $138 billion.
When HR and workplace leaders contemplate how to best support their employees’ mental health and well-being, considering that some of their employees are likely experiencing stalking at work is part of the equation. As Angie so vividly described, being stalked is terrifying and isolating.
Angie’s stalking story
Angie talked about meeting her stalker, whom she refers to as Thompson, when they began dating as teenagers. From the beginning, he stepped over boundaries her parents set about how much time they were spending together, sneaking into her house through the dog door at night, at which point she’d wake up with him standing over her as she slept.
She notes that as a teenager, she didn’t see anything wrong with his behavior, assuming that his desire to be around her constantly was a sign of love. Angie and Thompson married after several years of dating, and his behavior became more violent and controlling.
Thompson’s violence escalated during their marriage, endangering Angie and their young children. He refused to leave her alone when she attempted to separate from him, including acquiring protection orders against him.
At one point, after she’d gotten a protection order, he broke into her home, strangled her while she was holding her infant child, and held a knife to her throat. Thompson continued to control Angie’s life against her will, threatening her, attacking her, breaking into her home, and showing up at her workplace.
Stalking in the workplace
Stalking is deeply connected with domestic violence, and usually involves intimate partners or acquaintances. A current or intimate partner stalks 40% of stalking victims, and 42% are stalked by someone they know. When the stalker and victim know each other, about 25% are acquainted through work.
During Angie’s talk, she mentioned that Thompson arrived at her workplace and hid under a desk, waiting to attack her until she was alone. She’d also show up to work with strangulation marks on her neck and black eyes.
I asked her if anyone in her workplace took steps to keep her safe or talked to her about it, and she said no. It was a small office, and she felt they didn’t want to deal with it. Quite possibly, they didn’t know how.
Workplace-related stalking behaviors
Stalking in the workplace may fly under the radar or seem harmless from a distance. Workplace leaders need to be aware of stalking behaviors so they can recognize them in their workplaces.
Signs of stalking in the workplace include:
- Following to/from the workplace
- Asking coworkers for information about the victim
- Showing up at the workplace
- Monitoring and surveilling the victim while they’re at work
- Tracking software on electronic devices
- Talking to friends, family, or children about the victim’s work routines or commute
- Unwanted contact at work
- Harassing coworkers, customers, and clients
- Submitting complaints about the victim
- Sending gifts, packages, and mail to work
- Harassing the victim while at work, including sexual harassment
- Unwanted contact through work phones, email, or company social media
- Damage to work property
- Threats to attack the victim at work
- Threats to harm coworkers, customers, or clients
- Forced confrontations at work
- Threats to get the victim disciplined or fired
- Damaging or stealing the victim’s work property (keys, car, laptop, papers)
- Humiliating the victim or spreading rumors to undermine their employment or make them look bad to coworkers
- Sharing the victim’s personal info, photos, or videos
- False complaints or reviews
- Physical or sexual attacks at the workplace
- Purposefully getting the victim fired
- Making the victim late for work or keeping them from going
One of the DV advocates I spoke with had a client attending a court hearing for a temporary protective order (TPO) against her abuser via Zoom while she was at work. She was talking with the judge about her situation when her stalker burst into her office. Needless to say, she was granted the TPO.
How workplace leaders can address stalking
Assess the situation and partner with the employee
Suppose an HR leader or supervisor knows about or suspects an employee is being stalked. In this scenario, they might start by having a conversation with the employee. It’s critical to keep in mind that the employee is the best authority regarding their own life, while also considering the safety of everyone in the office.
Some questions for the employee might include:
- Does the employee feel safe at work?
- Is the stalker showing up to the workplace?
- Has the stalker threatened violence?
- Does the employee have a temporary protective order in place?
- Can the information be shared with other employees for safety reasons?
Employ empathy and understanding
One of the advocates I talked to noted that, as a workplace leader (or advocate), you can’t expect the person to give you every detail about their situation. It might be easy for workplace leaders to think (or say), “just leave the relationship” without understanding the full context.
It’s challenging, dangerous, and complex for people to leave a relationship with intimate partner violence. Angie repeatedly noted during her talk, “I was safer when I was with him.” Thompson was more predictable in his violence when they were together. When she’d leave him, he would often escalate, stalking and attacking her in surprising and unexpected ways.
On average, leaving an abusive partner for good takes people multiple attempts. Although that may seem confusing to someone outside of the relationship, there are many factors in this dynamic, including:
- A lack of places to go
- Religious beliefs
- Hope that the abuse will get better
- Desire to raise children in a two-parent home
- Emotional attachment
It’s complicated to safely leave when one person is bent on controlling, possessing, and harming another human, especially when that person is an intimate partner. One study found that in intimate partner-related murders, leaving was the most frequent catalyst.
Adding children or a lack of finances to such a situation only adds complexity and danger. Amid this complexity, asking an employee, “What do you need? How can we help you feel safe at work?” or, “How can we support you?” is a good starting point.
Angie talked about Thompson being housed at a psychiatric facility and continuously calling her while she was at work. Her workplace did not make accommodations to stop the calls, and the facility where he was being held also declined to assist her in preventing the calls.
HR leaders and supervisors can approach stalking in the workplace from two perspectives: safety for the employee and safety for everyone.
Accommodations that might be helpful include:
- Changing their office, location, phone number, schedule, parking space, and screening phone calls.
- Offering an escort for the employee as they enter and leave the space.
- Accommodating time off for court dates, relocation, and related meetings, such as with their advocate.
- Enforcing temporary protective orders when applicable and calling law enforcement if the abuser/stalker violates the order by showing up to the workplace.
- Allowing the employee to talk to their DV advocate while at work. Often, they aren’t safe doing so at home.
Create a stalking policy and offer resources
It’s also important to have a policy regarding a stalker’s presence in the workplace. There should be a plan to collaborate with security, contact law enforcement, and keep employees safe if a stalker shows up at the workplace or is harassing an employee while they’re at work.
Resources to offer the employee might include:
- Relevant workplace policies and benefits
- Local shelter information, support groups, the national domestic violence hotline, and TPO options
- Comprehensive mental health support
Stalking safety at work
One organization whose mission is to end intimate partner violence found that 21% of full-time employees have experienced domestic violence, and 74% of those respondents were harassed/stalked at work.
After working at a domestic violence shelter for close to five years and listening to stories like Angie’s, what I most want for HR and workplace leaders to understand is how common DV is, and how many people are experiencing it as they go about their everyday lives—while working and trying to stay safe.
I’ve seen firsthand how much of a difference providing support can make in people’s lives. Knowing that someone cares and is willing to take steps to ensure their safety can be profound. HR and workplace leaders are positioned to make that difference in employees’ lives.
Learn how to recognize the signs of domestic violence, navigate situations in the workplace, and develop a domestic violence workplace policy.