A corporate vice-president's home is spray-painted by vandals in the dark of night. Days later, he receives a cryptic fax spelling out a death threat. Fearing for his safety, his company makes a move that's become more and more common in recent months: It hires secret-agent-style protection.
"Right away we provided physical security, 24-hour coverage, had someone in his driveway at all times, escorted him to the office, to meetings, to dinners," said Sunil Ram, president of Huntsville, Ont.-based Executive Security Services International, of the service provided to his client, whose identity has been withheld.
The executive had been choosing who was next on the layoff block, Mr. Ram says, and clearly somebody knew it. The VP's home and office were scoured for electronic bugs. His children were driven to school by trained security guards.
Executive security services around the world have enjoyed a boost in business in the past six to eight months as mass layoffs continue and headlines tell troubling tales of "boss-nappings" and disgruntled layoff victims seeking revenge.
Some executives have received personal threats, while others hire security companies as a precautionary measure. Many workplaces are ramping up general security in case someone flies off the handle.
Mr. Ram says demand for his executive protection services has gone up 20 per cent in Canada and the United States in the past few months. He expects interest in these kinds of services to continue to grow as the recession drags on.
His company also provides security at employee terminations and trains security staff to be ready for an outburst should one happen.
Demand for employee threat assessments has risen 30 per cent, he says, prompting his company to conduct more surveillance on employees who companies worry may strike back.
The economic downturn coupled with post-Sept. 11, 2001, security concerns has spiked interest in security services overall, says Sascha Forst, spokesman for global executive protection company Jax Desmond Worldwide.
"We're getting a huge increase when it comes to employees being laid off and either making threats or posing risks to executives," he says. "That's a big concern, especially for executives that have families."
The firm, which also protected witnesses in the Anna Nicole Smith case, has companies fill out 20-page threat assessments before taking them on as clients, Mr. Forst says. The client assessments cover "everything from fetishes to extra-curricular activities" since clients are also protected from extortion.
Busier days for such security companies signal a disquieting lack of trust and respect between managers and employees in today's workplace, says Julian Barling, associate dean of the School of Business at Queen's University, who researches employee aggression.
"I think it is such a sad commentary. … In the past, I think those services were primarily available because of the perceived threat on the outside," he says. "But now I think they're also there because of the perceived threat from the inside."
Even so, concerns over employee backlash in Canada are largely overblown, he adds.
Unnecessarily ramping up security in a workplace can poison morale and widen the gap between employees facing layoffs and executives enjoying bonuses, Prof. Barling says. Guilt can make managers feel the need to protect themselves, and the stress of having to conduct layoffs can make them paranoid about strike-backs.
There's no need to hire a security company if you've fostered a respectful working environment, he says.
"I think that if there were specific people for whom they were really, really concerned over a long period of time, the question is why are they still there?"
While there does tend to be more workplace violence during recessions, the statistics vary, he says. A 2007 Statistics Canada report found that nearly one-fifth of all violent incidents that occur in Canada - physical assault, sexual assault and robbery - happen in the workplace and that 71 per cent of violent workplace incidents are physical assaults.
Employers might also be more vigilant as they realize they can be held liable under occupational health and safety laws. Just last week, Ontario's Ministry of Labour proposed new legislation to require employers to introduce workplace anti-violence policies and hold them accountable should an employee get hurt in this way.
"Now this is not a surprise for other jurisdictions across the country. Ontario has been very slow," says Glenn French, president of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence. "[Organizations]might have once said, 'Oh that's just Joe, he's kind of an odd character.' Now they're actually … asking for a threat assessment of an individual to determine whether or not they would pose a security risk."
These precautionary assessments look at an employee's history of violence and also troubleshoot any problematic behaviour he or she might continue to show.
For these employers and security service clients, it's all about peace of mind.
Deb Smith, a public relations professional in the southeastern United States, has hired agents to protect one of her corporate clients, a CEO in the high-tech sector. Following a very public gift of a new Escalade, awarded to him as a bonus, the $500,000-a-year executive received several e-mails calling him out for accepting the gift while others suffered in the recession.
After hiring the security firm he feels safer, Ms. Smith says, but he's angry he has to walk on eggshells.
"I think they're reasonable concerns, I really, really do," she says. "I think it's sad that people need to have them."