Five ways HR can improve cyber security


Following high-profile cyber crime incidents involving Pathe, Butlin’s and Morrisons, Jon Abbott investigates how HR can minimise the cyber threat, given that employees represent a significant risk.

Security breaches are becoming more targeted and costly. The government’s Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2019 shows that one in three businesses (32%) suffered an attack or breach in the previous 12 months, costing an average of £4,180 to each business, each year.

As companies ramp up their cyber defences with more sophisticated technology, attackers are choosing softer targets. Attacks that rely on human error, such as phishing (identified by 80% of respondents) and impersonating an organisation (28%) now outnumber viruses, spyware or malware attacks (27%).

Incidents can result in loss of data or even large sums of money. Last year holiday company Butlin’s admitted that up to 34,000 guests may have had their personal details compromised as a result of a phishing attack. Meanwhile, the financial director of film company Pathe’s Dutch arm was sacked after paying over €19m into a bank account in Dubai, along with the CEO Edwin Slutter who had authorised him to do so. The two men believed they were acting on instructions emailed from the Paris headquarters and that the funds related to a company acquisition. Both later filed for unfair dismissal.

Cyber security has traditionally been seen as a job for IT departments, but as threats change they are unable to hold the line alone. It has become a company-wide challenge and HR professionals have a key role to play in minimising it. Malware protection and anti-virus software are vital, but technology will not deter intruders if poor staff awareness or access policies effectively leave the door wide open.

HR professionals need to ensure employees’ skills are updated to encompass cyber security. Most have already taken the first steps by increasing data protection measures in light of the General Data Protection Regulation – and the Cyber Security Breaches Survey found the regulation had raised awareness of security – but the focus has largely been on data. Organisations now need to consider cyber security as a whole.

Here are five step HR teams can take to minimise threats:

1. Collaborate with IT

HR and other departments need to work closely with IT departments to manage cyber security. Ideally there should be a company-wide framework that brings different elements together, including technology and policies and procedures, and ensures that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

2. Understand the basics

While HR professionals do not need to know all the technical details, it will be useful to learn the basics of cyber security. The government’s Cyber Essentials guide outlines the key principles. The most relevant for HR is the need to control user access, the key principle being that “staff should have just enough access to software, settings, online services and device connectivity functions for them to perform their role. Extra permissions should only be given to those who need them”.

3. Put the right policies and procedures in place

Access rights should be outlined in a user access control policy, granted as part of the onboarding process, reviewed regularly, then revoked when an employee leaves the organisation. There should also be appropriate password controls in place and a process to allocate secret authentication information to users.

The use of mobile devices and remote working must also be considered. Companies should have a policy detailing the acceptable use of mobile devices, along with a policy on security measures to protect the information accessed, processed or stored outside the office. Social media is another risk.

Policies and procedures will be determined by the organisation’s circumstances and whether it simply wants to meet its legal obligations or achieve a recognised standard such as Cyber Essentials or ISO/IEC 27001:2013.

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Employers should also complete background checks as part of staff-vetting procedures and have a disciplinary process for those who breach security rules. In 2014 a disgruntled Morrisons employee deliberately leaked staff salaries, bank details and national insurance numbers of 100,000 staff numbers to newspapers and data-sharing websites. Although he was sentenced to eight years in prison, Morrisons was also found vicariously liable for his actions. The retailer has been given permission to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

4. Carry out staff training

All staff should have some type of cyber security training to make them aware of security and data protection rules, policies and procedures, plus any particular threats they may encounter. Cyber security training should be part of the onboarding process, but in any case employees need to receive updates regularly.

While staff at all levels have a responsibility to protect their employer’s data, directors have a particular duty of care. Regulators have made clear that it is a board-level issue and are willing to hold directors liable for any breaches. The National Cyber Security Centre says cyber security should be part of a manager’s skill set and its guidance states that “executive staff should be as aware of the major vulnerabilities in their IT estate as they are of their financial status”.

 5. Put monitoring in place

Companies need to be able to detect threats at an early stage. While breach detection might normally be outside the HR remit, HR teams do need to know if procedures have not been carried out by staff. An emergency plan also needs to be in place in case a data breach or other incident occurs.

Employers should keep records for compliance purposes too. Not every incident can be prevented, but they should be able to demonstrate that steps have been taken to minimise security risk.

While much of the responsibility for cyber security lies with IT departments, an organisation’s systems will not be watertight unless human error or malpractice is tackled with HR’s input.

Jon Abbott

About Jon Abbott

Jon Abbott is CEO at ThreatAware, a software platform that allows managers with no specialist IT knowledge monitor their organisation's cyber security.
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