How to Defend Your HR Systems Against Cyber Attacks

Companies need the right tools to help them keep their HR systems safe from cyberattacks but also the right processes and training.

Nobody likes to imagine someone attacking their company’s HR systems. However, planning for such a scenario is a key part of preventing an attack from happening – and defending against one if it does take place.

Why are HR systems a target?

HR systems contain hugely valuable data. Not only do they include employee information such as names, home addresses, dates of birth and more, but many HR systems also include financial information such as salary details, bank account numbers and pension information.

This is precisely the kind of information that hackers can use for nefarious purposes. Someone using stolen identity details, for example, could commit application fraud, applying for financial products such as loans. Hackers can, of course, also sell stolen employee information on the dark web or issue a ransom demand for its return to the business.

What types of attacks aim at HR systems?

Maintaining robust security for HR systems can be a challenge in the face of today’s rapidly advancing technological landscape. This can be even more of a challenge for small and medium-sized businesses, who don’t have the same spending power for IT security as large enterprises do. In fact, worryingly, a 2022 UpCity study found that only 50% of small and medium businesses even have a cybersecurity plan.

Hackers often use a blend of technology and social engineering to fool companies into providing them with system access. Others simply seek a way in through security vulnerabilities or by using brute force. The fact that so many HR services are outsourced also presents hackers with another potential angle.

Some common HR system attacks that companies need to defend against include:

  • Ransomware – hackers can work their way into a company’s HR system, then shut it down until the company pays them a ransom.
  • Phishing attacks – cybercriminals trick employees into giving out the access details/user credentials that they use to access HR systems.

Of course, it is not just external attackers that HR systems must guard against. Crimes such as payroll fraud can be committed by employees, who may (for example) pay themselves more than they should or create ‘ghost employees’ who don’t exist other than on the payroll, with their salaries going into the criminal’s own bank account.

How can companies defend against HR system attacks?

Companies that want to protect their HR systems need to combine the right tools and processes with robust cybersecurity training that ensures employees are aware of the latest threats and how to defend against them.

Tools for defending against HR system attacks are many and varied. Most likely, your IT team will implement a solution that defends not just your HR system but other vulnerable systems across the business, using tooling that defends against a wide range of attacks and fraud attempts.

However, tools can only go so far. The other two elements of protecting your HR system – processes and training – both rely on people. Consider that 82% of data breaches are the result of human error and the importance of this is thrown into stark relief.

Processes must be designed to ensure compliance with relevant data protection legislation. They should ensure sufficient checks and balances so that no single individual can become a weak link in the system.

Staff then need to be trained on how to implement and follow all processes relating to protecting HR systems. The quality of the training is key to ensuring that processes are followed as intended.

Training extends well beyond these processes. All staff who have access to HR systems must receive cybersecurity training that keeps them updated as to the latest developments and threats. This is essential if staff are going to remain as vigilant as possible in looking out for potential signs of an attack on their systems, whether via phishing, malware, or any other means.

Such training isn’t a one-off event. It needs to be held regularly, ideally with refresher activities in between training sessions to ensure that cybersecurity matters remain top of mind for staff. Cybersecurity training also needs to be delivered in a way that ensures staff engage fully with it, rather than seeing it as a tick-box exercise that they have to sit through before getting on with their “real” work.

What benefits can focusing on HR system attacks deliver?

Diligence in terms of cybersecurity can certainly pay off. According to Beazley’s Q3 2022 Cyber Snapshot, there has been a decline in system infiltration as a cause of loss in all industries except healthcare from 2021 to 2022. The firm noted in the report that it felt “greater recognition and efforts towards cybersecurity” had played a part in this reduction of loss.

In addition to a reduction in financial loss, putting HR system attacks under the spotlight in terms of employee awareness can also help to ensure that company data is kept safe. This protects both the individuals to whom the data belongs and the company itself, by preventing data breaches that could result in fines, operational disruption and reputational damage. The latter can have a major impact on everything from customer acquisition to talent retention to revenue.

Final thoughts

Companies need the right tools to help them keep their HR systems safe from cyberattacks but also the right processes and training. Employees represent the biggest potential vulnerability that a company has. As such, they need to be at the heart of any business’ strategy to defend against HR system attacks, no matter which forms those attacks may take.

Employees need to be given sufficient knowledge to understand the dangers that the company faces, including how those risks change and evolve over time. Regular training is a must.

Gergo Varga
Gergo Varga's fight against fraud has been going strong since 2009. Working at various companies, he's even co-founded a startup. Today, he serves as Product Evangelist at SEON, where he continues to disseminate his insight and expertise across the company and beyond. He has authored the Online Fraud Prevention Guide for Dummies and hundreds of other articles and guides. Based in Budapest, Gergo enjoys reading, tech and philosophy.