Stalking and Harassment: definitions, differences, and deterrents

What is stalking and what constitutes harassment? We explain the difference, outline the UK law, and suggest how employers can support victims.

Stalking, harassment, and abuse are unfortunately rife in UK society. In fact, according to Suzy Lamplugh Trust, stalking affects up to an estimated 1.5 million people in England and Wales every year.

Dealing with the issues arising from such behaviours is extremely difficult for victims and complex for those around them e.g. family members, friends, colleagues, or employers.

In this blog we define both stalking and harassment, highlight some examples of stalking behaviour, touch on harassment and stalking legislation, and provide resources to help employers support victims of stalking.

What is the definition of harassment?

Citizens Advice define harassment as "unwanted behaviour which you find offensive, or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated. It can happen on its own or alongside other forms of discrimination".

They note that you don’t need to have previously objected to something for it to be unwanted.

What counts as harassment?

Examples of harassment could include:

  • Abusive words – whether written down or spoken
  • Online communications containing offensive or embarrassing content e.g. emails, or posts/comments on social media
  • Objectionable images and graffiti
  • Inappropriate physical gestures
  • Facial expressions which are intended to humiliate
  • Offensive jokes.

Can perpetrators be charged for harassment in the UK?

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is intended to protect people in the UK from harassment or similar behaviours.

For someone to be charged under section 2 and section 4 of the Act, the relevant evidence needs to be collected and presented to the court. A solicitor will advise on this, however, examples include evidence that the harassment has occurred and evidence that the behaviour exhibited by the perpetrator was intended to cause alarm or distress.

Furthermore, under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is classed as unlawful if it relates to:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

What is the definition of stalking?

The National Stalking Helpline defines stalking as: "A pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent, intrusive, and causes fear of violence or alarm and distress in the victim".

Examples of stalking behaviour

In terms of behaviour, stalking can manifest in several different ways. Some examples of stalking include:

  • Regularly following a person’s movements or observing their social patterns or behaviours
  • Hanging around places likely to be frequented by the victim (e.g. home address, workplace, public transport, supermarket etc)
  • Repeatedly making contact or attempting contact with a victim
  • Leaving unwanted messages or gifts
  • Monitoring use of digital tools / social media or any e-communication
  • Publishing material about the victim on social media
  • Threatening physical abuse.

If you are unsure whether the behaviours your subject to could be classed as stalking, please see Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s video assessment tool, "Am I being stalked?".

What are the laws on stalking in the UK?

Stalking formally became a criminal offence in Scotland in 2010 and England and Wales in 2012.

Anti-stalking legislation in the UK is covered by the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act and the addition of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (England & Wales).

In Scotland, anti-stalking legislation is provided via Section 39 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act 2010.

2020 saw the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs). SPOs were brought in to specifically support any existing prosecution through the Protection from Harassment Act to support local safeguarding and immediate public protection for victims of stalking behaviour (similar to a restraining order).

What’s the difference between stalking and harassment?

Understandably, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between situations of harassment and stalking. They are sometimes even discussed as being one and the same. This can be because victims of stalking may also be victims of harassment and vice versa, and many of the behaviours exhibited by perpetrators can be similar.

However, if the perpetrator’s behaviours become frequent and obsessive i.e. they seem fixated on their victim and their behaviour is recurring, this would constitute stalking.

Stalking often includes multiple forms of harassment and is sometimes more severe (with or without violence).

How can employers support victims of stalking?

According to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a legal duty of care to remove risk to personnel “so far as is reasonably practicable”. However, it can be difficult for employers to know what to do in circumstances as complex as stalking.

SoloProtect and Suzy Lamplugh Trust have teamed up to produce a comprehensive guide for employers, designed to give hints and tips on how to better identify, understand and support colleagues who are victims of stalking.

The guide, "Supporting victims of stalking in your workforce", is free to download and looks at how stalking is defined, addresses traditional behaviours, highlights the impact of stalking in the workplace, and discusses how stalking behaviours can be exacerbated for lone workers and other community-based personnel.

What should you do if someone is stalking you?

If you think you’re being stalked and you want to find out what you can do, contact the National Stalking Helpline on 0808 802 0300 or complete their enquiry form. The helpline is open 9.30 – 16.00 every weekday, apart from Wednesday when they operate extended hours 09.30 – 20.00.

You can also visit the following websites:

Safety Tips for Lone Workers

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