Stalking is a crime of power and control. The National Institute of Justice defines stalking as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.”
Cyberstalking involves the use of electronic communication to create a criminal level of intimidation, harassment, and fear in one or more victims. Cyberstalkers may flood a target’s inbox with threatening or obscene messages; or assume the victim’s identity and post and solicit responses to intimidate, degrade and harass. Cyberstalking is often accompanied by traditional stalking.
An exhaustive study of cyberstalking by McFarlane and Bodcij (2005) identified four stalker types, including vindictive stalkers, the one who would intentionally infect the victim’s computer with a virus. Composed stalkers cause distress through a variety of threatening behaviors delivered in a calm, precise manner. There are collective stalkers who work together pursuing the same victim. They also identified stalkers whose intention is to establish a relationship with the target.
A recent study of post-relationship cyberstalking published in the Journal of Violence showed a considerable overlap between reports of unwanted in-person pursuit and unwanted cyber-pursuit. Excessive or threatening messages were linked to the development of post-traumatic or depressive symptoms.
Anyone can become a victim. Stalking can continue for months even years. As the frequency and duration of stalking incidents increase, so does the victim’s emotional harm and risk of potential physical harm. Victims of cyber stalking may have abrupt changes in eating and sleeping patterns, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, fear for safety and hyper vigilance. Hyper vigilance may cause the victim to lash out inappropriately through aggressive even violent behavior when in a state of fear. Hyper vigilance is associated with post-traumatic stress.
Victims may lose time at work to address psychological symptoms, attend to legal matters, fear leaving their homes, or to avoid work if the stalker is a co-worker. Victims may also suffer with failing work performance due to mental health effects such as inability to concentrate, anxiety, confusion, irritability and workplace tensions about the stalking, as well as an inability to catch up on work.
Employers must create an environment that encourages employees to speak up about stalking and bullying. Develop strong policies against harassment that include bullying, stalking and cyberstalking regardless of one’s protected class. Educate employees that the victim is not to blame even when the victim was in a relationship with the stalker. It is critical employees do not feel they will be regarded as overreacting or over-sensitive if they report anything that may rise to victimization. Train managers to praise employees for bringing suspicious and aggressive situations forward. Should a stalking situation arise, figure out how to best support the victim and other employees. Review security issues with the victim and co-workers. Inform anyone who may greet visitors personally, via telephone or Internet. Work with security, risk management and police to establish a precise plan. There is no single response or strategy other than do not keep it a secret! Avoiding the problem builds the perpetrators’ power and control.