Protecting employee privacy is more important in 2018 than ever before. Show your employees you care about employee data with these five strategic steps.

It’s simply assumed that the confidential employee data workers share with their employers will remain exactly that: confidential. But if you’re collecting employee data in any capacity, that data is at risk of a security breach, potentially leading to identity theft.

Sixty-four percent of all Americans have experienced a breach in their personal data, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, and about half of Americans feel that employee privacy is less secure now than it has been in years past.

What’s worse, identity theft resulting from stolen employee data isn’t just stressful for your workforce, it’s expensive for your business. Fifty-five percent of identity theft victims reported missed time from work, 39 percent of these victims cited an inability to concentrate or focus while at work and an overwhelming 74 percent cited an increase in their overall level of stress, according to a recent survey of identity theft victims conducted by the Identity Theft Resource Center. In addition to absenteeism, stress at work leads to lost productivity among staff, a higher rate of employee turnover and even puts your employees at a greater risk for a number of significant stress-related health problems.

These days, it may seem as though a data breach is an inevitable risk for your company, but there are strategic steps you can take to protect against criminals accessing your sensitive data.

1. Be clear with your workforce about which employee data you need to access and which data your employees should keep private.
Generally, employers have the right to access and own anything their employees do, say or record on company property or while on company time. Bottom line: make your company’s privacy policy explicitly clear in comprehensive written agreements, HR workshops, employee handbooks or even pop-up warnings on any monitored devices. Ensure that any employee benefits platforms that collect sensitive information – including retirement or financial wellness – do the same. When employees have a clear understanding of what information their employers have access to and what the information is used for, they can better protect the information they divulge. It’s also important that employees understand why these privacy policies are necessary.

2. Use the best data security for the information you keep.
Data from an employee’s computer may help you monitor office productivity, while information about your employees’ average length of employment can help with turnover predictability. You can also use data about employee health or employee finances to help you choose the best benefits programs for your team. Access to this information brings the responsibility of implementing strong security protocols for the safeguarding of employee – and employer – privacy. Work with your data security team to establish best practices for handling internet usage and document storage or destruction of confidential employee data. Limit the time your employees spend on unsecured networks and opt for a private, secure network when dealing with company and employee data. Encrypting all messaging done on company time and property should be a default practice, but utilizing multi-factor authentication adds another layer of safety.

3. Know how your benefits providers handle your employee’s information.
Your company might be handling your employee’s data with care, but what about your third-party employee benefits providers who have access to sensitive employee information about retirement, healthcare and financial wellness? Work with benefits providers that meet your business’ security standards and reevaluate them regularly. Assess what your vendors have access to and limit it to what is absolutely necessary. Look for a retirement or financial wellness provider who can anonymize sensitive information about your employees’ finances. Put your company’s confidentiality requirements in writing. Be transparent with your expectations and only use vendors that comply with company security and privacy protocols and who are willing to submit to regular auditing.

4. Encourage your employees to take an interest in their own privacy.
Employee error is the number one reason for company-wide data breaches, according to research from the Association for Corporate Counsel. Ensuring that individual employees are practicing safe data management can ensure the safety of your company at large. Helping your workforce understand that employee privacy is valuable (and vulnerable) is your first line of defense. Host company-wide workshops with IT professionals to bring everyone on the same page.

5. Stop thinking of employee privacy as a one-time problem.
Criminals are constantly finding new ways to access sensitive employee data. Staying on top of employee privacy isn’t a one-time activity, it’s something that requires constant review and regular maintenance. As quickly as technology improves, criminals find new strategies for stealing employee data.

Safeguarding your workforce from identity theft is a constant battle, but it’s one your company can accomplish by staying vigilant about how you handle sensitive employee data. Stay informed on the ever-growing online privacy landscape in order to take the correct steps in securing the privacy your company’s and employees’ data.