Every day, businesses contend with all sorts of threats. Like it or not, these risks have become a fact of organizational life in the modern digital world. While some dangers come from external sources — like cybercriminals — insider threats are also surprisingly prevalent. In fact, insiders are the biggest risk some companies face.
Fortunately, many HR teams are stepping up to play a critical role in locating and mitigating these dangers. To learn more about these threats and how HR can help prevent them, read on…
What Are Insider Threats?
Anyone who currently or previously worked for an organization can pose an insider threat. Employees, contractors, business partners, and others can put your company or staff at risk. These instances include intentional and unintentional attacks that are physical or digital in nature (such as cyberattacks).
Why Do Attacks Happen?
Insider threats can develop for various reasons. A member of your workforce may be struggling with a health condition, financial challenges, family issues, or other personal problems. Business changes can also trigger an attack. For instance, organizations are likely to be more exposed during a reorganization, a merger or acquisition, or as the result of staff layoffs.
However, unintentional threats can arise during daily work activities, as well. Often, when people are anxious, fearful, unaware, or distracted, they may not rely on security best practices. This can open the door to phishing attacks or data breaches that inadvertently harm your organization.
For example, in 2019, 885 million personal accounts were compromised when systems at First American Financial Corporation accidentally leaked customer data. Also during that same year, a third-party data breach at WhatsApp exposed 1.5 billion user accounts.
Although insider threats can occur anytime, multiple warning signs usually build up in advance. Behavioral indicators like these deserve attention:
- Is an individual refusing to participate in mandatory security audits or training activities?
- Is the individual threatening staff members or your company in social media posts?
- Do disputes with colleagues and managers occur frequently?
- Has disciplinary action been required — suspensions, demotions, or removals?
- Are personal difficulties apparent? (For example, obvious frustration from work stress, financial issues, or other problems.)
Types of Insider Threats
It’s important for HR professionals to know about common types of insider threats. Here are a few scenarios to keep in mind:
- Workplace Violence
Any physically aggressive acts or threats that harm on-site employees or company property. This includes intimidation, hazing, assault, or harassment.
- Property Theft
When employees or others steal company devices, equipment, data, or materials, especially assets involving proprietary information or national security.
Damaging, destroying, or modifying company property to harm employees, customers, business allies, or the organization overall.
- Insider Fraud
When someone changes, removes, or uses company information or systems for self-gain, including insider trading or embezzlement.
- Accidental Insider Threat
An unwitting oversight or operational negligence that harms colleagues, customers, or the company. This includes actions that lead to unintended security breaches, phishing attacks, or lost/misplaced confidential information.
5 Ways HR Can Help Prevent Insider Threats
HR can play a key role in preventing these threats throughout every stage in the employee life cycle — including hiring, ongoing performance management, job changes, and offboarding. Here are five ways HR professionals can minimize these issues:
1. Conduct Thorough Background Checks
Smart organizations take every precaution to anticipate and mitigate insider threats from the start. Before extending an offer to any potential employee, conduct an extensive criminal background check and verify the candidate’s resume by calling listed references.
Careful screening can identify past behavior, such as workplace violence, fraud, or criminal actions. If red flags arise, the interview process is a perfect opportunity to clarify and understand the story behind any situation.
2. Implement Mandatory Security Training
Newly hired employees should participate in security training and activities. This helps educate people about cybersecurity risks and gives you a forum to clearly explain company policies and best practices. It’s also an opportunity to reinforce your company’s commitment to security as a top priority.
3. Define a Baseline for Normal Behavior
By working closely with IT leaders to determine standards, you can specify behavior that is normal/acceptable versus abnormal/unacceptable. Establishing this baseline enables your IT teams to monitor network activity, so they can identify potential dangers. When incidents are detected, IT can alert appropriate departments for necessary action.
It’s worth noting that when employees believe policies are overly strict or unfair, they may choose not to comply. This only increases the likelihood of insider threats. To avoid this, be sure you clearly communicate relevant standards and explain why those standards are in place. Also, be transparent about how IT teams monitor behavior, and what kind of actions they consider unacceptable or out-of-the-ordinary.
4. Foster a Supportive Workplace
Employees should feel comfortable and supported at work. A toxic environment where people are regularly embarrassed, belittled, humiliated, or forced to work under excessive rules only increases the potential for insider threats.
Successful workplaces cultivate a culture of trust, respect, and support where employees feel comfortable discussing personal or work issues. In this type of environment, managers and supervisors take discretion seriously.
Employees should know that co-workers with behavioral issues will be helped and not punished. This ensures that everyone will feel more comfortable sharing concerns about others.
For this reason, consider implementing an employee assistance program where anyone who is struggling can receive support and counseling. Make it a priority to help anyone who is at risk, and also address any grievances brought to your attention.
5. Terminate Employees With Respect
When employees depart, it’s vital to make the offboarding process as smooth as possible. Regardless of whether an employee chooses to resign or is terminated, thoughtfully managing the offboarding process can significantly reduce security risks.
If termination is required, proceed with care, so you preserve a sense of dignity. If possible, conduct the termination meeting in a room that lets the employee leave the premises quietly, without public embarrassment or shame.
Also, plan to remove the individual’s access to devices and systems as quickly as possible. In addition, remember to collect all company property and review nondisclosure agreements to avoid any misunderstanding about rules the employee previously agreed to follow.
A Final Word on Avoiding Insider Threats
HR plays a critical role in minimizing exposure to insider threats throughout the lifecycle of every employee. Proper planning, precautions, and proactive communication can make a tremendous difference. Above all, focus on creating and sustaining an environment where employees feel respected, trusted, empowered, and supported.