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How Does a Clean Desk Policy Protect Sensitive Data?

Andrew Rinaldi
Andrew Rinaldi

Having a clean and neat workspace can have security benefits.

There are many reasons to put your desk on your to-tidy list this Spring.

But beyond sparking joy, a clean and neat workspace can have security benefits as well. Spring Cleaning is a great opportunity to roll out a Clean Desk Policy at your organization to help protect company and customer sensitive data. Here’s a guide to the why and how of your clean desk policy.

Data security applies to ALL data

Every business handles sensitive data, from employee and customer personal information to intellectual property, business plans, and financials. One quick way to check is to ask yourself, "Would I be OK if this information was posted on a public website for everyone to see?" If the answer is "No," then consider that information sensitive and treat it with care. As a small business, you know how important it is to protect this data, and that’s why you roll out a comprehensive cybersecurity program to defend against cyber-threats. But we have to remind ourselves that sensitive data is everywhere, not just on-screen. And just the same, protecting data means protecting it everywhere it’s stored – even if that’s on a piece of paper that can be seen, lost, or stolen.

What is a Clean Desk Policy?

A Clean Desk Policy states that at the end of each day, all papers must be cleared from employees’ desks and any sensitive data locked. A clean workspace free of paperwork can have a positive impact on productivity, but the primary rationale behind this is more than tidiness: Clearing desks removes access to confidential information from anyone who walks through the facility:

  • Other employees not authorized to receive the information
  • Invited guests and customers
  • After-hours cleaning, maintenance, or other contractors
  • Burglars or other intruders

Although it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think “data breach,” either malicious or unintentional exposure of sensitive data – even to one person – is just that: A breach of confidential information that can have negative impact on the company.

Regardless of the trust you have in employees and others in the facility, you never know who could walk through and what they could do with information gathered from desks. Leaving confidential information exposed increases the chances that malicious intruders or insiders will find information they’re looking for. Additionally, employees with lots of paper on their desk may not immediately notice if a sensitive document goes missing or is thrown in the trash when it should be destroyed.

Your Clean Desk Policy

Your organization’s Clean Desk Policy can be customized to fit your business, but it’s important to have it written down, shared, trained to, enforced and regularly updated. You can include a Clean Desk clause in your Technology and Data Use Policy or have a separate policy altogether, but be sure to consider that at the end of each day, employees should:

  • Clear their workspace of all papers, notes, and documents
  • Store all sensitive information in a locked drawer or cabinet
  • Shred any unnecessary sensitive information

Additionally, everyone should get in the habit of locking their computer (i.e. hit Windows+L in Windows or Command+Option+Power on a Mac for a quick lock) and stowing sensitive documents any time they leave their desk, even if just for a few minutes. This is particularly important for employees who have frequent visitors in their space, such as a HR professional or receptionist.

Follow these steps to make your Clean Desk Policy successful:

1. Introduce and educate

Once your Clean Desk Policy is written, it’s time to involve the team. Explain the rationale behind the policy and emphasize that it’s best practice to keep company data safe. Be sure to cover logistics as well: proper ways to store and protect documents, how the policy will be enforced, etc. Ask all employees to review and sign the official policy yearly and discuss with new team members during onboarding.

2. Provide storage and disposal solutions

A Clean Desk Policy isn’t feasible without storage. Ensure all employees have access to storage, preferably their own locking drawer or cabinet, to stow documents. Additionally, consider investing in shredders for disposal of sensitive documents – there are plenty of small office models that can be placed throughout your workplace giving employees easy access.

3. Decrease your reliance on paper

If you’re already storing information in a secure cloud or hard drive environment and keeping trustworthy backups, consider whether an additional paper copy is truly necessary. While ditching paper altogether won’t be right for every situation, reducing the number of hardcopies minimizes the risk that they will be lost, stolen, or mishandled. Encourage employees to use their judgement in situations where keeping extra paper copies could do more harm than good.

4. Lead to succeed

Make sure business leaders and department heads understand the policy and how it might affect employees and procedures. Encourage them to keep an eye on workspaces to check for exposure of sensitive information. Each department and employee will have different work and storage styles, and employees who deal with lots of paper data may need additional support as you roll out your policy.

Security involves many components, but the more you pay attention to protecting data, the more natural it becomes. While you’re spring cleaning your home and office, consider the benefits of a Clean Desk Policy to help protect data all year round.

Image Credit: ImageFlow/Shutterstock
Andrew Rinaldi
Andrew Rinaldi Member
I'm the Co-Founder of Defendify, the first all-in-one cyberesecurity platform for Small Business. Defendify makes cybersecurity possible for businesses with under 500 employees through its all-in-one, web-based cybersecurity platform that gives Small Business owners and managers the ability to easily—and holistically—protect themselves with ongoing, affordable, scalable cybersecurity.