Elements of an Effective Security Awareness Training Program
12 min read
Apr 16, 2021

3 Essential Elements of an Effective Security Awareness Training Program

Employees are often the weakest link in a cybersecurity chain. Create an engaging security training program using these important elements.

Zach CapersSr. Content Analyst

Small-business leaders buy and deploy expensive security technologies, hoping to keep themselves safe from cyberattacks. But your IT security technology alone won’t prevent cyberattacks that use social engineering techniques to manipulate employees into divulging confidential information or entering their credentials into a bogus website.

Security awareness training is an effective, inexpensive way to help your employees improve their knowledge of cybersecurity best practices. A strong and engaging security awareness training program will help you save money by preventing data loss and damage to brand image.

Fortunately, our research shows that security awareness training is on the rise, with 57% of employees reporting annual security awareness training in 2019 compared to 71% in 2020 (see our survey methodology at the bottom of the page).

But that still leaves more than one in four employees who aren't receiving security training on a regular basis.

In this article, we'll go over three essential elements of a security training program: preventing phishing attacks, keeping employees safe online, and improving data privacy.

What is security awareness training?

Security awareness training is the formal process of educating your employees about cybersecurity best practices. It should teach employees how to identify fraudulent emails, avoid harmful websites, and refrain from revealing confidential data.

Security awareness training programs can include online training materials, simulations of real cyberattacks, and employee acknowledgment of IT security guidelines.

1. Prioritize phishing attack prevention

Phishing uses social engineering techniques that manipulate aspects of human nature such as the inclination to help others, the tendency to avoid conflict, and a willingness to follow direction. The most common form of phishing is via emails that attempt to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information, clicking a malicious link, or downloading a virus-laden attachment.

But phishing doesn’t always come in the form of email; it could also be an imitation website that collects your personal information or a bogus phone call attempting to steal your network credentials.

In recent years, targeted phishing attacks and business email compromise schemes have become more common. Instead of sending mass emails to random recipients, these scams target specific individuals who have access to confidential information or the ability to transfer funds. The attacker poses as someone the victim knows, such as a superior or familiar business vendor, to trick the employee. The fear of not complying with an urgent request often hastens the employee to take action, causing them to fall into the phishing trap.

The best way to tackle malicious phishing attempts is by training and educating your employees. Here are some tips to include in your training plan:

  • Verify the authenticity of the email: Take your time before responding to emails, both from known and unknown sources. Do not immediately click on any URLs within the email, send any confidential data, or transfer money. When in doubt, contact your manager, or wait until you can confirm the authenticity of the email.

  • Double-check URLs: Often, you can identify fake URLs through the warning signs they leave. Bogus domains often mimic the original one but with minor differences (e.g., .co instead of .com). They may be partially masked, have multiple dashes, or they may be shortened.

  • Look for grammatical and spelling mistakes: Many phishing emails and websites include errors that may suggest fraudulent content.

  • Encourage employees to report suspicious emails and recognize or reward those who do: By creating awareness about a potential phishing threat going around, other employees can be alerted before opening the malicious email.

Additional resources

For more phishing training and practice, check out our free guide: How to Spot Phishing Emails—A Brief Guide

Additionally, here are some software tools to protect against phishing emails:

2. Make sure employees stay safe online: 10 best practices

Your employees use the internet for a variety of business and personal transactions whether researching potential clients, downloading free marketing templates, or contacting business partners via email or social media.

Safe and intelligent internet browsing practices will help your business grow revenues, reduce costs, and expand its customer base. Fall into the traps laid by cybercriminals, though, and it could even mean the end of your business.

Use your cybersecurity awareness training plan as an opportunity to enforce safe internet browsing practices among your employees.

Here are 10 tips for safe browsing that every comprehensive security training plan must include:

  1. Update browser and operating system (OS) software regularly: Running older versions of your browser or OS leaves you vulnerable to new forms of malware. Ensure that software is set for automatic updates and act as soon new patches are available.

  2. Check for HTTPS and the padlock sign: An HTTPS connection encrypts your connection with the third-party websites you browse. This becomes particularly important when sharing confidential information or making an online payment. You should also ensure that your own business website is protected using an HTTPS certificate to strengthen security and to prevent hacks.

  3. Scan file downloads: Cybercriminals try to trick you into downloading malicious files laced with malware. Never download files from unknown websites without scanning them with antivirus software.

  4. Use a VPN to connect to the office network when working remotely: Virtual private networks (VPNs) help to secure your network connection and encrypt communications to ensure business transmissions are safe.

  5. Use strong passwords: Complex passwords are essential for protecting your online accounts from hackers. Moreover, using the same password across different websites makes it easier for hackers to break into multiple accounts. Use a password manager tool to create and store passwords securely.

  6. Update and run antivirus software regularly: Antivirus software solutions alert you to malicious files. It’s important that you update your antivirus software regularly so it can detect the latest forms of malware and spyware.

  7. Check URLs before clicking: Mouse over the hyperlinked text in a document to see where it leads. Be wary of websites that offer free games, ask for money, or want you to recruit others. Again, when in doubt, seek help from a supervisor or your IT team.

  8. Optimize privacy settings: Enable privacy settings where possible to keep your digital footprint less exposed so that attackers have less access to your personal information. Read our guide to removing personal information from the internet here.

  9. Avoid saving credentials to browsers: Using web browsers to save your usernames and passwords is convenient, but it also creates a juicy target for hackers to steal your credentials. Not only that, but a lost device with autofill gives away all your accounts. Avoid using browser autofill to reduce risk to your online accounts.

  10. Post judiciously on social media: People can go overboard with what they post on social media websites. Posting personal or professional details that would ideally stay confidential will only allow social engineers one step closer to you.

3. Improve data privacy and protection measures

Large enterprises tend to have adequate measures in place to safeguard data and maintain compliance with privacy regulations. But small businesses often lack the tools or resources needed to protect against risks such as malware attacks and data breaches.

That’s why it’s important to train employees to identify confidential information and follow data privacy and protection rules. Confidential data is that which is not publicly available and is intended only for the people directly working with it. 

There is often a thin line between confidential and nonconfidential. What was once classified as confidential data may no longer be confidential, as in the case of revenue numbers before and after being reported.

So, encourage employees to talk to a manager whenever they’re unsure about the privacy status of data they’re about to use. Better yet, develop a data classification program to ensure employees know exactly how to handle different types of data. 

To make this easier, we’ve created a comprehensive guide to creating a data classification program.

Leverage software applications to mitigate data privacy issues

  • IT asset management tools with remote lock-and-wipe capabilities can help you erase confidential data from lost or stolen devices.

  • Data backup tools help you create a copy of your data. Disaster recovery software helps you restore your backed-up data and work on it in case of emergencies or lost data.

  • Business continuity software helps you run your business smoothly even in the face of disasters such as earthquakes or DDoS attacks that can cripple your systems and wipe data.

  • Training software can be used to create simulated environments for employees to distinguish between confidential and non-confidential data or recognize social engineering attempts.

Next steps for creating your own security awareness training program

Building a culture of security is an ongoing process. It involves constant reinforcement of security best practices along with new ideas to tackle existing and evolving threats.

One of the first steps to take is to measure where your employees stand with respect to their understanding of key security issues. If your employee base is generally unaware of IT security best practices, you will need to start with the basics and build up from there.

To gauge their security sophistication, consider giving your employees a quiz. For example, the Pew Research Center provides a cybersecurity knowledge quiz that can be used to find your level among the general population.

These are the key steps you should take as you prepare your own security awareness training program:

  1. Set clear objectives: Clearly define the goals that security awareness training intends to achieve. For example: increasing the reporting of phishing emails by 15%, minimizing the number of cybersecurity-related human errors by 10%, or any other item that is relevant to improving your business's security.

  2. Create an internal security training team: Create a task force (possibly made up of both IT and HR staff) that will administer and organize security awareness training programs. Ensure that the individuals on the team have the authority to drive the program. You can also rotate this team, say every six months or annually, with another set of people to bring in different perspectives and ideas.

  3. Design engaging content: IT security training sessions can be, in a word, boring. Providing engaging training content—team exercises, quiz competitions, security champion awards—will make employees more cyber aware. Tailor the content to meet the training needs of different employee demographics (e.g., regular employees, employees with privileged accounts access, contract workers).

  4. Update your security training plan annually (at least): Conduct surveys and quizzes to understand how knowledge of IT security practices has improved among employees. Review and update your training plan at least once a year to meet the new IT security challenges faced by the business.


GetApp’s 2020 Data Security Survey was conducted from September 10 to September 11 among 868 respondents who reported full-time employment. Of the 868 respondents, 267 identified as IT professionals and 83 identified as their organization’s IT security manager.

GetApp’s 2019 Data Security Survey was conducted in June 2019 among 714 respondents who reported full-time employment. Of the 714 respondents, 207 identified as IT professionals.

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