Security, Productivity, and Usability in the Enterprise

During interviews I conducted for my dissertation research, I asked individuals how the security policies and systems affected their daily life in terms of productivity and work and personal communication. Interviewees gave many examples of tradeoffs between security and usability. People understood the reasoning behind many of the security restrictions. However, these implementations often significantly reduced productivity and frustrated employees everyday work practices and basic personal communications needs. Many implementations actively motivated employees to subvert security protections. The lengths to which people went "work around’’ what they perceive as overly restrictive security and compliance implementations lead to distinctly counterproductive measures in terms of overall security.

Security implementations in systems and security policies vary widely across the enterprise. These systems can help prevent unauthorized access, dissemination of proprietary business information, and confidential customer data. Security and compliance systems are also essential to passing an audit. The effectiveness of a system’s security is directly related to the overall user experience of the system. Security implementations that do not adequately consider a range of factors including existing work practices, the overall usability of the system, and basic social communication requirements may have serious negative consequences for morale, productivity, and information security.

Unsurprisingly, interviewees often responded that they were more concerned with job performance and completing the tasks at hand than with complying with corporate security policies. In short, they were far more worried about a lost job or a promotion from not getting their word done, than they were about violating security policies. Don Norman summarized the problem nicely as “The more secure you make something, the less secure it becomes.”

People did not distinguish between the technology failing, not understanding how the technology works, and not realizing that a task was technically infeasible. In one example, an employee had tried to work from home over the weekend. This employee was not able to access the corporate network, because the VPN was inoperable over the weekend and the situation was possibly complicated due to a user misconfiguration. The following Monday morning, the employee was rebuked for not completing the project by the deadline.

Institutions that do not pay attention to employee’s perception that they can be productive and efficient when implementing security policies may find their employees at odds with their own policies. The employee perceived the situation as technological failure the prevented the work from being completed. This had significant consequences as the employee began to regularly copy data to an external device or via a personal email account to ensure they would be able to work. It is easy to criticize employees who violate security policies and argue they should be reprimanded or fired. However, in nearly every case in my interviews, the employees who violated policies did so to work around situations the company could have been avoided though a more nuanced implementation that took productivity into account. In the particular case of the VPN, it was clear there were widespread problems with remote access that lead to undesirable methods of replicating data.

Companies would be rewarded with higher levels of job satisfaction and productivity if they took greater efforts to both explain security policies and made attempts to ensure that users, especially mobile users, were not regularly prevented from communicating or managing documents. In these cases employees were appreciative of how productive the system allowed them to be while still mindful of the risks involved. Explaining the reasoning behind the policies and implementations goes a long way to improve compliance. In the now classic paper, “Users Are Not the Enemy” Adams and Sasse found that individuals did not have adequate understanding of security issues and that security mechanisms were not adequately explained to them. In addition, the authors found that security departments did not understand their user’s perceptions of security or their needs. The lack of understanding combined with lack of communication resulted in reduced security overall.

Many businesses could reduce the risk of compliance violations by taking into consideration their employees’ everyday communications needs and practices. Internal needs assessments, possibly including surveys and interviews, can be used to determine how well corporate needs for security and compliance align with employee’s work practices and other communications needs. Security policies and compliance systems that take social factors, work practices, and overall understanding of the reasoning behind the requirements into consideration will be far more effective than those that do not. Unfortunately, it seems that this is the exception and not the rule.


A. Adams and M. A. Sasse. Users are not the enemy. Communications of the ACM, 42(12):40–46, 1999.

D. Norman When Security Gets in the Way

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