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How to Make Employees Happy

FEATURE / 07.24.18 / Pete Herzog

So, I’m going to deduce that you are interested in making employees happy. You should. It increases productivity, improves security, and greatly reduces successful social engineering attacks. A quick logic check and I think it’s safe to say then that happy employees means happy management.

But… you won't like this. You won't. It’s not exactly common-sense stuff. Actually, some of it is the exact opposite of that. It’s uncommon sense, which not ironically, most people don’t have. So, if you finish this article at all it's because you were curious about how much more wrong I could be. But I’m not. It’s all science.

That’s not to say science isn’t sometimes wrong (it’s not, I’m just placating you) or that employees must be happy (they should, me placating again), but if you follow this advice you’ll find their happy place at work for them. And as I said before, science says you’ll also make your company more productive and more secure against online attackers and social engineering fraudsters.

That’s three awesome benefits for the price of one! That’s like throwing a crazy wild birthday party for one friend and in the process also trapping those two nasty raccoons that keep sneaking into your kitchen to lick your apple chips. Three benefits out of one! True story.

Why does it work this way? Well a lioness’ share of company attacks focus on abusing trusts. Whether it’s phishing, banking fraud, social engineering, or attacking third-party access, all are trust abuses.

Because they mostly work. Here’s why:

People are designed to trust in illogical ways that are highly impressionable and highly immune to helpful security barriers. We don't let good sense and good security get in the way of our trusting! So, the relation between trust and security is well founded and well researched. Which is why fundamental changes to improve how people trust will inherently improve security. And these methods all come from making happier employees.

Happier Employees Don’t Say No

One of the common ways to manipulate a person into giving information which they should not have given is by preying on their sense of politeness. That’s why you need to empower them to say, “I don’t want to” instead of “I can’t” or even just “no.”

Saying “I don’t want to give you that information” or “I don't want to do that” puts one in a position of decision and power. It also lets you be self-confident in your decisions.

The problem is that fighting with someone throwing “I can’t" or just “no" is mentally exhausting. Maintaining will-power requires a certain amount of mental stamina. Which means persistence can pay off for the attacker as people eventually give in. So, it helps for people to minimize anxiety, especially when they are already in a position of heavy multitasking and stress, sometimes known simply as “being at work.”

Teaching and encouraging employees to say politely “I won't” to answer people when it is against the rules will help them not get manipulated into breaking rules. It will also minimize their anxiety and stress. Hence, happier employee.

Happier Employees Don’t Get Threatened

Maybe you threaten them (legally) to read and sign the security policy. Maybe you put up posters or give out mouse pads on what evil threats lurk online and the consequences of an attack. Maybe the employees get classes on how easy it is to hack them and steal from them. Maybe you even reward them for snitching on the people who didn’t wear their identification badges. Maybe they get a visit from I.T. to let them know you see what they’re downloading. So stop.

Overloading people with paranoia and fear brings an anxious, negative culture which causes even more mental fatigue than employees can handle. Mental fatigue means bad decision-making. Feeling like they’re constantly being watched leaves them feeling untrusted, which makes it hard for them to trust the company back. These are the things that hurt trust and ultimately happiness.

Stop making them afraid of making a mistake and let them feel that they can safely report their own mistakes. That will promote happiness. Additionally, mentally alert, trustworthy employees will be better at detecting social engineering and reporting it quickly once they realize they’ve been duped.

Happy Workplaces Push Happiness

There are way too many studies to list here which say that happy employees are productive employees. Remember the Disney movie of Snow White? What did the seven dwarfs do with each other before they met her? They whistled while they worked. They worked happily. Happiness has been proven to reduce an employee’s fatigue-related absenteeism by 23% and makes them 10% more engaged at their work. YMMV.

So not only does happiness reduce stress and the need for multitasking on those who have to cover for sick employees, it also leaves employees more mentally capable of fending off a social engineering attack. Not to mention reducing the burden of maintaining a security culture if there’s constantly different people due to turn-over.

So, adjust the lights, paint the walls comfortable colors, give them good chairs, and make sure you let people laugh. The last bit you do by giving employees some control over what's in their work space, when they can take breaks, and how they work. It doesn’t even have to be completely flexible. But the more flexibility you give over those things, the more happy your employees will be. Just apply this rule: let them feel like they own their space and not just work there.

Happier Employees Socialize Less at Work

Socializing is another task employees need to “multi” in their day. It’s also the most mentally exhausting of all tasks, requiring multiple regions of the brain to flare up as they need to think ahead, read expressions, and exhibit the proper niceties of the workplace. Socializing, despite some finding it stimulating, is actually mentally taxing. At work it’s even more so as norms need to be followed or at least carefully gauged as to be sure you don’t say the wrong thing.

As social animals we can just do it, so it doesn’t seem to be as hard for us as something like long division. But it is. It consumes a lot of energy. So much so that studies show 89% of employees are more productive when working alone. However, with so many ways to communicate, is alone really alone?

A Google study showed 66% of people use their smart phones and PCs simultaneously. Meanwhile, 90% have shown they multitask through various forms of communication throughout the day.

Social networks add to that distraction by both causing employees to divert attention away from their tasks as well as further socially engage, which as we said before tires their minds. Employees using social networks and constantly communicating with others, even if in a fun and happy way, progressively lose the ability to stay alert to threats as the mind tires.

So, remove social networks for anyone whose job is not social networks and encourage alone time, going for walks, and not sitting around to chat whether in a break room or in a meeting. Don’t outright forbid socializing, but do encourage alone-activities and rest. This leads to a happier, safer, less mentally fatigued employee.

Happy Workplaces Discourage Showing Off Effort

There's a weird phenomenon where most people equate value with effort. There's a catch: the effort has to be visible. So best visible results are to be sweating at your desk covered in coal dust. But since that’s not always possible, most employees just do it by being seen for long hours in the office to appear more dedicated and therefore valuable to the company.

There's another effect, a glitch from our primitive selves, where we constrain our memories and ability to think to the space we're in. Which is why you sometimes forget what you went to get the moment you leave the room.

Between those two effects, you are mentally stagnating employees by keeping in the same place all day. So stop it.

Studies show that quiet walks refocus attention and refresh the mind. If people are going to gather to meet and discuss business or even to socialize, they should be walking. They should do it in big, open spaces with no roof. They should do it outside. Standing and walking are both healthy, keep blood going to the brain, and minimize stress. All things you want in a mentally alert employee. Which, coincidentally also makes them happier.

So stop trying to make employees compete over how much they’re doing and how much they’re around just to prove their value. It will promote a happier atmosphere and leave their brains rested to deal with social engineering and fraud.

Happier Employees Do This, Secure Businesses Too

But you're not going to do any of these, are you? Of course not. It's crazy. It's much better to have a vulnerable organization with trust issues then to deal with social ramifications of being the weirdo.

So, don't ask me to tell you how to have happier employees next time if you’re not even going to read to the end of the article. 

Pete Herzog

About Pete Herzog

Guest Research Contributor at BlackBerry

Pete Herzog knows how to solve very complex security problems. He's the co-founder of the non-profit research organization, the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOM). He co-created the OSSTMM, the international standard in security testing and analysis, and Hacker High School, a free cybersecurity curriculum for teens. He's an active security researcher, investigator, and threat analyst, specializing in artificial intelligence (AI), threat analysis, security awareness, and electronic investigation.