Your five-year-old hears the doorbell ring just after you’ve jumped in the shower. They’ve been trained by your example to answer the door when they hear the bell, but are a bit too young to have had the “never answer the door unless I’m with you” talk. The man at the door is dressed in a sharp uniform that says Acme Repair (meep meep). Your child doesn’t read yet, but they recognize an authority figure when they see one (thanks Wile E Coyote), and let him in when he says, “Your mom called to have the heater fixed." 

Whether the repairman can be trusted or not — whether he is an evil criminal or actual handyman — is beside the point. Your child has let a stranger into your home. Now you have a choice to make: Punish your child, or recognize that they didn’t know any better and teach them how to change their behavior in the future.

I’ve been preaching the gospel of good cybersecurity habits since I lost my business and net worth to cybercrime 15 years ago, and I’m still surprised at how many organizations continue to punish their employees for mistakes made because the company never delivered proper “don’t answer the door” or “don’t click that link” training. In fact, I’ve worked with financial institutions whose policy is to fire employees who click on a single malicious phishing email link. That outdated response is no more enlightened or effective than spanking your child and blindly hoping that the pain and humiliation teaches them what it was they were supposed to be doing.   

There’s never been a better time or more compelling reason to invest your training dollars. Over the next five years, companies will incur an estimated $5.2 trillion globally in lost revenue and additional costs due to data breaches, according to a 2019 report from Accenture. Here’s the kicker, though: 90 percent of data breaches are caused by human error. Ninety percent. 

Would you allow your child to have an “answer the door” failure rate of 90 percent? Of course not! What if your business development team missed its sales goals 90 percent of the time? The comparisons are apt because the best way to create any type of culture is to educate, reward, retrain and, only if all else fails, penalize.

Too many organizations skip to the final step and punish individual employees (or entire departments) for data loss or other security lapses without providing the tools for success. One of the most effective and least utilized tools in cybersecurity is an incentive program that rewards good cyber behavior.

You already know that employees only care so much about company data, let alone the company’s bottom line, but they care a heck of a lot about their own data and personal bank accounts. Instead of beginning security training sessions focused on the company’s crown jewels, focus on family photographs, personal financial documents and other important data people store on their own devices. If you can get employees engaged and practicing good cybersecurity habits at home, those habits will transfer to the workplace. 

Then, sweeten the pot with incentives — and make it fun. Many organizations are using gamification to train and test their employees’ cybersecurity habits, and with good reason: In a 2015 study, 79 percent of the participants said that they would be more productive and motivated if their learning environment was more like a game.

Companies are increasingly catching on to this strategy. For example, Intuit had a game (Cloud Defense) custom-designed to teach employees its latest cybersecurity protocols. Notably, the game challenges players to protect their database from malware attacks while permitting safe traffic to pass through — arguably a skill that every employee on the planet needs to master.

It’s not necessary for companies to use customized games, however. PwC created Game of Threats, which takes board members and senior executives through a simulated cyber attack. Participants act as both perpetrators and defenders, which gives them unique insight into how to prevent and/or respond to an attack.  

Games are a great tactic to engage employees in a fun way, but the training needs to be constant, not just during “game month.” More importantly, good cybersecurity needs to be rewarded. Rather than waiting for a breach to punish (or, more appropriately, educate) employees, give gift cards to users who don’t click on simulated phishing attempts all year long. A $50 gift card and some internal fame (think photos on the cafeteria wall) is far less expensive than the cost of recovering from a million-dollar incident. Reward employees for actually watching the security videos you produce, showing up to trainings during National Cybersecurity Awareness Month or reporting suspicious or fraudulent email.

I recently gave the keynote at a conference at which the CEO of a billion-dollar organization recognized employees who had perfect security records. By calling them up on stage in front of their colleagues and presenting them with prizes, the CEO wasn’t paying lip service to security; she was putting her money (and admiration) where her profits were. That’s how you create an organic culture of security that sticks. As the old adage goes: Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave. 

Even with the best training, however, people will inevitably make mistakes. Case in point: During my presentations, I’m able to hack the smartphones of executives and security professionals (who think they are impervious to security mistakes) while they’re on stage. All it takes is patience and a bit of background data on the target. 

So the next time an employee makes a security mistake, instead of going right for punitive measures, retrain. In the parlance of parenting, turn slip-ups into teaching moments. Use the specifics of the incident to reiterate how the mistake could have been avoided, and then test the employee’s cybersecurity savviness when they are least expecting it. After all, it’s easy to perform when you know a test is happening; it’s much harder to do the right thing when it’s a pop quiz. 

If an employee continues to be lackadaisical, that’s the time to introduce penalties — just as there are penalties for other types of inappropriate or careless behavior in the workplace. This doesn’t necessarily mean firing the employee, however. You might start by restricting access to certain websites or software that they would otherwise be able to use, or sending them to an all-day training on security. 

The advantage of emphasizing rewards for good cybersecurity practices over penalties for bad ones is that you’ll get better results. People are more inclined to apply themselves to a task (or learning new habits) when they are engaged and there’s a reward for success (maybe an extra day off or dinner for two at a fancy restaurant).

Cybercrime is a low-risk/high-reward enterprise that’s not going away, but here’s the good news: If 90 percent of data breaches are caused by human error, 90 percent can be stopped. It’s time to make cybersecurity personal for your employees, train them on best practices and reward them for their success. 

Only then will they know when to answer the doorbell, and when to just let it ring.