How Data Security Improves When You Engage Employees in the Process

When it comes to protecting information, we can all do better. But encouraging a can-do attitude goes a long way toward discouraging users' risky behaviors.

Robert E. Crossler, Assistant Professor of Information Systems, Washington State University

September 28, 2018

4 Min Read

Even with best-in-class data breach protection and prevention technology, strong security and privacy practices start internally — with your employees. There are several ways to go about this, but based on my work in the field for over 10 years, the most effective ways to lower a company's risk exposure begin and end with a positive approach. Here are three examples:

1. Give Employees a Reason to Care
Communicating security messages that are relatable and provide actionable steps employees can take to protect information and respond to threats is more effective than authoritative commands. Encouraging a can-do attitude also goes a long way. When employees aren't afraid of being punished for mistakes, like accidentally clicking on a phishing link, they're more likely to exhibit positive behaviors. You can reinforce these behaviors by reminding employees that information security is a team effort for the protection of the entire company.

Another way to engage employees is a rewards system for good behavior. These range from physical rewards (monetary or otherwise) to recognition (a lottery system or nomination process for recognizing your peers) and even gamification (a friendly competition that tracks performance on a leaderboard). Combining two of these concepts, Salesforce, a cloud computing company, piloted a security awareness gamification initiative focused on positive recognition rather than negative reinforcement. According to chief trust officer Patrick Heim, after 18 months, participants were 50% less likely to click on a phishing link and 82% more likely to report a phishing email.

2. Offer Choices, not Mandates
Reframe the conversation to focus on a partnership with employees, giving them multiple strategies for protecting information and responding to potential threats. By offering choices and getting their buy-in, you can make employees feel like part of the solution. For example, instead of saying, "You must adopt this security measure," try saying "Here are four options we recommend, and you can choose the one you're most comfortable using." Employees learn in different ways, so it can be helpful to give them multiple ways to achieve the same goal of enhancing security with secure passwords, for example, and complying with company policies.

A great example of inclusive programming is anti-phishing training, which teaches employees to identify fraudulent attempts to obtain sensitive information electronically, often for malicious reasons, under the guise of a trustworthy source. In order for this training to be successful, employees must learn how to make choices when they receive potential phishing emails. Experiential training with real-world simulations — where employees build their knowledge base and ability to make choices in the moment, as it relates to them and their learning style — has proved to be effective. According to the research from Herman Miller Learning Pyramid, learning by doing yields a 75% knowledge retention rate compared with 5% relying on lectures.

Giving employees a choice of password management software to use to achieve company security may also foster an environment of partnership versus rigid control. There are several strategies for coming up with a strong and unique password, allowing users to memorize them in different ways. One way is to think of an everyday phrase that is easy to remember, such as "My favorite action movie is 2 Fast 2 Furious!" Then grab the first digit of each word, which becomes "Mfami2F2F!"

3. It's About Security, not Perfection
Historically, companies have used deterrent strategies or fear appeals to discourage risky behaviors. Today, it's more effective to encourage positive behaviors by finding out what motivates employees and then communicating security messages that align with those motivations. At Family Insurance Solutions, for example, IT security administrator Jordan Schroeder noted in an interview that employees who were once his biggest concern are now his best partners in security because, in response to phishing and break-in attempts, he relies on positive feedback and messages of encouragement when they do the right thing. When they do the wrong thing, he shows them the correct behavior. Unlike Salesforce, there is no gamification, but the results are evident in employees' behavior as they educate themselves and no longer hide what they did wrong for fear of reprisal.

When it comes to protecting information, we can all do better. But if employees fail, it's important they feel encouraged to immediately report it and do the right thing. At the end of the day, perfection is not the goal — it's lowering your organization's risk exposure.

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About the Author(s)

Robert E. Crossler

Assistant Professor of Information Systems, Washington State University

Robert E. Crossler, an assistant professor of information systems, joined the Department of Management, Information Systems & Entrepreneurship in the Carson College of Business at Washington State University in July 2016. He obtained his bachelor's degree in information systems from the University of Idaho and his Ph.D. in accounting and information systems from Virginia Tech. His primary research interests are in the areas of information security and privacy.

Crossler's award-winning information privacy and security research has been published in top academic journals such as MIS Quarterly, Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of the Association of Information Systems, Information Systems Journal and Decision Support Systems. His research in information privacy was recognized by the INFORMS Information Systems Society with their 2013 Design Science Award. His research in information security was recognized by The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems as paper of the year in 2014 and by the Journal of Information Systems with its inaugural "Best Paper" award in 2017.

Crossler is also the president-elect of the Association for Information System's Special Interest Group on Security (SIGSEC). He is also a member of ISACA and is a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).

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