Social Engineering Training Explained (Essential Guide)

We dive into the process behind social engineering training and all of the tips and know-how you need to ensure your training successfully changes behavior.

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85% of organizations now experience some degree of phishing and social engineering attacks.

Social engineering accounts for 98% of all cyber-attacks...

And human error accounts for the vast majority of successful breaches.

One of the only ways to effectively reduce human cyber risk is through effective training.

In the guide below we'll dive into the process behind social engineering training and all of the tips and know-how you need to ensure your training successfully changes behavior.

Quick overview: what is social engineering training?

Social engineering training is an essential component of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, designed to educate employees on how to recognize, respond to, and prevent social engineering attacks.

Social engineering attacks exploit human psychology rather than technical vulnerabilities.

These attacks usually aim to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information, granting unauthorized access, or performing actions that compromise security.

Attackers use various techniques, such as phishing, pretexting, baiting, and tailgating, to deceive targets (we'll cover these in more detail later on👇).

Given the human-centric nature of social engineering attacks, training employees is crucial for several reasons:

Humans are your biggest vulnerability: Technology can only go so far in protecting against cyber threats. Humans are the weakest link in your security, as malicious actors exploit trust, curiosity, fear, and other psychological factors.

The threat landscape is growing: The frequency and sophistication of social engineering attacks are on the rise.

Regulatory compliance needs to be kept on top of: Many industries are subject to regulations that require regular security awareness training, including social engineering. Compliance with these standards not only ensures legal adherence but also enhances overall security posture.

The psychology behind social engineering threats

Social engineering is rooted in social manipulation and social exploitation...

Attacks mostly relies on the our underlying tendencies to trust other people.

In our everyday lives, we don't always need to be distrustful of others - and this is what attackers prey on.

Social engineering taps into our primal emotions such as fear, urgency, or greed in order to get targets to quickly comply with requests.

This is why, in order to fight social engineering, you'll need to instill a healthy degree of skepticism in employees.

Threat actors rely - for the most part - on the fact that most os us don't know social engineering exists... which is why implementing training is absolutely critical for avoiding successful attacks.

Goals of social engineering awareness training

Below are some of the core objectives that most social awareness training will aim to achieve...

Raising awareness

The first major aim of social engineering training is to make employees aware of its existence.

Awareness alone is very rarely enough to prevent cyber attacks, but its a necessary first step.

By being made aware of the common attacks used by cybercriminals, employees can at least get a handle on what might be out there (and ideally become more skeptical too).

What does this look like in practice? Training sessions might include real-world examples of phishing emails and other types of attack to give employees an idea of the tactics that might be used to trick them.

Promoting a culture of vigilance

The threat landscape is always evolving... which is why creating a company culture for security is vital for mitigating cyber risk.

Social engineering awareness training aims to build a sense of responsibility and awareness in employees, so that they can quickly spot and report attacks.

What does this look like in practice? Training will encourage employees to verify unexpected requests for sensitive information by contacting the requestor through a known and trusted method rather than replying directly to the suspicious message.

Improving incident response

Training programs should also focus on improving incident response capabilities of employees.

This means teaching them how to report suspicious activities promptly and effectively, as well as understanding the steps to take if they believe they have fallen victim to a social engineering attack.

What does this look like in practice? Employees will be given clear instructions on how to report phishing emails to the IT department as well as the next steps to tale to mitigate potential damage.

Sharpening recognition skills

Employees should come away from training with the skills and know-how needed to recognize potential social engineering attempts.

This involves training them to identify telltale signs of attacks, such as urgent language, unfamiliar senders, unsolicited attachments, and requests for sensitive information.

What does this look like in practice? Training modules will include phishing simulations, so that employees can practice recognizing and responding to potential threats in a controlled environment.

Reducing human error

74% of all security breaches include the human element.

Since human error is often the weakest link in cybersecurity, reducing the likelihood of such errors is always going to be a major goal of any training.

Training aims to minimize mistakes that could lead to security breaches, such as clicking on malicious links or downloading infected attachments.

What does this look like in practice? Employees will be taught to scrutinize emails and attachments before opening them and encouraging skepticism toward unsolicited communications. They'll also be trained on best practices such as using strong, unique passwords and enabling multi-factor authentication.


What does social engineering training actually look like?

Awareness sessions

These sessions introduce employees to the concept of social engineering, its types, and the potential impact of such attacks.

Real-world examples and case studies are used to illustrate the severity and consequences of social engineering breaches.

Phishing simulations

Simulated phishing exercises help employees recognize and respond to phishing attempts.

These simulations mimic real-world phishing attacks, providing hands-on experience in identifying suspicious emails and messages.

They'll also be used to measure employee susceptibility to phishing attacks.

Interactive workshops

Some training solutions will include workshops.

These are designed to engage employees in interactive scenarios where they must identify and respond to various social engineering tactics.

Customized training content

Customized training content is used to address the specific needs of your employees.

This ensures the training is relevant and effective.

  • Role-based training: Training modules may be tailored to specific roles such as executives, finance personnel, and IT staff - sending them different types of social engineering threats to tackle.
  • Interactive modules: Interactive training modules that include videos, quizzes, and real-world scenarios are used to engage employees.

Continuous education

Training content should update regularly to ensure that employees stay informed about new and evolving social engineering tactics.

Tracking and reporting

Most training vendors should allow you to generate reports on employee performance in simulated attacks so that you can identify trends and pinpoint departments or individuals who may need extra support.

Hoxhunt reporting
Here's what reporting looks like in Hoxhunt ☝️

Designing an effective social engineering training program

Warnining: not all social engineering training is effective at changing real-world human behavior.

Below are a few factors you'll want to consider when shopping around for vendors...

How user-friendly is training? Is content broken down into digestible chunks?

Even if your training is mandatory, that doesn't mean you have to disrupt employees' day-to-day work.

Training that incorporates content into an employee's regular workflow without stopping productivity for hours at a time.

Training that keeps content shorter than 5-7 minutes will generally be more efficient at maximizing learning.

A few quick things to look out for:

  • Short training moments
  • User interaction
  • Training that can be embedded in an employee's workflow (email client, work phone, laptop, etc.)
  • Success rewarded
  • Gamification
Personalzed social engineering training

Is content personalized?

If you want employees to stay engaged, training content should be relevant to their job role, cyber knowledge and language.

Not all employees have the same level of knowledge - and so a one-size-fits-all approach just isn't going to be effective.

Personalized learning paths are a factor you may want to consider when weighing up vendors...

This essentially just means that the training an employee receives adapts to their performance on simulated attacks.

If someone keeps failing simulation exercises, you'll be able to send easier attacks for them to spot and report. Once they have some success with these and are more motivated and engaged, you can then send slightly more challenging simulations.

Social engineering training language selection

What does the reporting look like?

Passing a few tests a year doesn't means you'll be able to catch real-life, modern phishing attacks.

The two KPIs you'll want to look at first are:

  • Reporting rates: how employees spot and report simulated exercises
  • Failure rates: the percentage of employees who fall for simulated phishing attacks or other social engineering attempts despite having received training.

If you can increase reporting rates of simulation exercises, you'll likely increase the reporting rates of real-world threats too.

And failure rates will give you an idea of where employees may need additional training in the future.

Is training frequent? Does it reinforce and reward positive behavior?

Reinforcement and continuous repetition builds habits.

Research tells us that has proven that rewards and positive feedback are more effective than trying to scare employees into action.

So, look for vendors who reward employees for catching simulated social engineering attacks and phishing campaigns.

You may also want to keep an eye out for the quantity of phishing simulations promised per employee on an annual basis. 

Frequency of training will directly correlate to outcomes... and repetitive actions drive a lasting behavioral change.

Common types of social engineering attacks you'll want to train employees on

Phishing

Phishing is one of the most prevalent forms of social engineering...

Google blocks around 100 million phishing emails daily.

Attackers send fraudulent emails or messages that appear to come from legitimate sources.

The goal is to trick recipients into clicking on malicious links, downloading infected attachments, or providing sensitive information like usernames, passwords, and credit card details.

Example: An employee receives an email that looks like it’s from the company's IT department, asking them to reset their password by clicking on a link that leads to a fake website designed to steal login credentials.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing is a targeted version of phishing.

Unlike generic phishing attacks, spear phishing involves personalized messages tailored to a specific individual or organization.

Attackers gather information about their targets to make the scam more convincing and increase the chances of success.

Example: A finance manager gets an email from what appears to be the CFO, referencing a recent company project and requesting a detailed report, including sensitive financial data, to be sent to an external email address.

Spear phishing example

Whaling attacks

Whaling phishing is a type of spear phishing that targets high-profile employees such as executives or senior managers.

The stakes are higher, and the content is more sophisticated, often involving significant financial transactions.

Example: Your CEO may receive an email from a fraudulent account appearing to be a legal advisor, requesting urgent approval for a large financial transaction.

Pretexing

Pretexting involves creating a fabricated scenario (the pretext) to steal someone’s personal information.

The attacker often pretends to need information to confirm the identity of the recipient.

Example: An employee recieves calls or emails from someone pretending to be a colleague or partner needing information for a supposedly critical project.

Pretexting example

Baiting

Baiting is when employees are lured into a trap by offering something enticing.

This could be a free software download that installs malware, or physical media like a USB drive left in a public place.

Example: An employee finds a USB drive labeled "2024 Budget Plan" in the office parking lot. Curious, they plug it into their computer, unknowingly installing malware.

Tailgating (piggybacking)

Tailgating occurs when an unauthorized person gains physical access to a restricted area by following someone with proper access.

This attack relies on the victim's willingness to hold the door open for the attacker.

Example: An attacker carrying a large package follows an employee into the secure office building by asking them to hold the door open, bypassing security controls.

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo attacks involve offering a service or benefit in exchange for information.

The attacker pretends to provide a legitimate service but aims to steal sensitive information or gain access to systems.

Example: An attacker posing as IT support calls various employees, offering to fix their slow internet connection in exchange for their login credentials.

Vishing (voice phishing)

Vishing involves using phone calls to deceive individuals into revealing personal information.

Attackers may pose as bank officials, tech support, or government representatives to extract sensitive data or gain access to systems.

Example: An employee in the IT department gets a call from someone pretending to be from tech support, claiming there’s a critical issue with the company’s network and asking for remote access credentials to "fix" the problem.

Smishing (SMS phishing)

Smishing is similar to phishing but involves the use of SMS or text messages.

Attackers send fraudulent messages that appear to be from trusted sources, urging recipients to click on malicious links or provide personal information.

Example: A marketing team member receives a text message that appears to be from the company's bank, warning of a security breach and providing a link to secure their corporate account, which leads to a phishing site.

Here are the metrics you need to measure

Phishing simulation click rate

This metric measures the percentage of employees who click on links in simulated phishing emails.

Benchmark: The average click rate for phishing simulations is around 20-30%. A successful training program aims to reduce this rate to below 10%.

Reporting rate

The reporting rate measures the percentage of employees who report suspicious emails or potential social engineering attempts.

Benchmark: A good benchmark is to achieve a reporting rate of over 80% for phishing simulations.

Time to report

This metric tracks the time it takes for employees to report a suspicious email after receiving it.

Benchmark: Ideally, the time to report should be within a few minutes to an hour of receiving the suspicious email.

Employee engagement and feedback

Gathering feedback from employees on the training program can provide qualitative insights into its effectiveness and areas for improvement.

Benchmark: Aim for positive feedback from over 75% of employees, indicating that the training is engaging and useful.

Completion rate of training modules

This measures the percentage of employees who complete assigned training modules on social engineering.

Benchmark: A completion rate of over 90% is ideal. High completion rates ensure that the majority of employees are receiving the necessary education and training.

Reduction in real-world incidents

Tracking the number of actual social engineering incidents reported or mitigated due to employee actions.

Benchmark: A noticeable reduction in successful social engineering attacks over time indicates effective training. A goal could be a reduction of at least 50% in incidents year-on-year.

Protect your organization against social engineering with Hoxhunt

Hoxhunt provides personalized phishing training, automated security awareness training and advanced behavior change - all in one human risk management platform. 

Social engineering attacks start with targeting employees... 

And so should the solution.

With Hoxhunt, you’ll achieve real risk reduction with measurable security behavior change that keeps pace with an ever-evolving threat landscape.

  • 20x lower failure rates
  • 90%+ engagement rates
  • 75%+ detect rates

Social engineering training FAQ

What is social engineering?

Social engineering is a psychological manipulation technique used by attackers to trick individuals into divulging confidential information or performing actions that compromise security.

Social engineers exploit human vulnerabilities rather than technical flaws, making it a significant threat to businesses.

How can businesses ensure their social engineering training is effective?

To ensure effectiveness, businesses can:

  • Regularly update training content to reflect the latest social engineering developments and threats.
  • Use realistic simulated attacks and penetration testing disciplines to provide practical learning experiences.
  • Conduct continuous training approaches with frequent refreshers and additional resources.
  • Foster a culture of security awareness and encourage proactive behavior among employees.

What challenges might businesses face in implementing social engineering training?

  • Employee resistance or apathy towards training.
  • Keeping training materials up-to-date with evolving threats.
  • Measuring the true effectiveness of training programs.
  • Ensuring engagement and retention of training material.
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