Applying the critical-path approach to insider risk management

What is the critical-path in relation to insider risks?

The ‘critical-path method’ (critical path approach) is a decision science method developed in the 1960’s for process management (Levy, Thompson, Wiest, 1963). In 2015, Shaw and Sellers applied this method to historical trusted insider cases and identified a pattern of behaviours which ‘troubled employees’ typically traverse before materialising as a malicious insider risk within their organisation.

Employees with concerning behaviours can sometimes manifest in the workpalce
Photo by Inzmam Khan on

This research paper was written after a period of hightened malicious insider activity in the USA, including Edward Snowden, Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, Robert Hansen and Nidal Hasan. Shaw and Seller’s research identified four key steps down the ‘critical-path’ to becoming an insider threat, as follows:

  • Personal Predispositions: Hostile insider acts were found to be perpetrated by people with a range of specific predispositions
  • Personal, Professional and Financial Stressors: Individuals with these predispositions become more ‘at risk’ when they also experience life stressors which can push them further along the critical path;
  • Presence of ‘concerning behaviours’: Individuals may then exhibit problematic behaviours, such as violating internal policies or laws, or workplace misconduct
  • Problematic ‘organisational’ (employer) responses to those concerning behaviours: When the preceding events are not adequately addressed by the employer (either by a direct manager or the overall organisational response fails), concerning behaviours may progress to a hostile, destructive or malicious act.

Shaw and Sellers note that only a small percentage of employees will exhibit multiple risk factors at any given time, and that of this population, only a few will become malicious and engage in hostile or destructive acts. Shaw and Sellers also found a correlation between when an insider risk event actually transpires and periods of intense stress in that perpetrator’s life.

Does this article resonate with you? Please vote below or subscribe to get updates on my future articles

The ability to identify these risk factors early means managers may be able to help affected employees before they cross a red line and commit a hostile or destructive act from which there is no coming back – but only if a level of organisational trust exists and if co-workers / employees are aware of the signs. The research by Shaw and Sellers is summarised in the following figure, which has been overlaid against the typical ’employee lifecycle’ for context:

Graphic of the critical path in relation to the typical employee lifecycle
The ‘critical path’ in relation to the employee lifecycle (Paul Curwell, 2020)

Shaw and Sellers found the likelihood of someone becoming an insider risk increases with the accumulation of individual risk factors, making early identification a priority which should help inform decisions by people managers within an organisation.

The critical path should help inform people-management decisions

Over the past decade, the focus of emotional and mental health and well-being has grown in western society (as highlighted by COVID 19). On the supply side, tight labour markets have focussed the attention of managers towards maintaining employee engagement and retention. Society’s increasing openness to discussing mental health issues, including stress and anxiety, is helping provide a mechanism for earlier awareness of behavioural conditions which could trigger an employee or contractor to progress down the critical path and become a malicious insider.

Consequently, there are now various supports and interventions in the workplace and in society to help employees with personal predispositions who are experiencing life stressors. Examples of workplace assistance programs include:

  • Employee Assistance Programs – providing access to workplace psychological and counselling services
  • Financial counselling – for individuals who are over-extended in terms of credit or are struggling financially (this may include support restructuring personal debt to avoid bankruptcy)
  • Addiction-focused peer support and counselling – such as Gamblers Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous

I’m sure that for some people, the increasing acceptance and willingness of society to be open to listening to colleagues who may be struggling helps to relieve the pressure somewhat, whereas historically these individuals may have been forced to suffer in silence.

It is critical employees feel adequately supported in the workplace to minimise insider risks
Photo by cottonbro on

The importance of these programs is that employees feel they are adequately supported, and that they are confident that if they self report an issue they will not be vilified, disadvantaged long term, or even fired for doing so. This concept is referred to by the CDSE as ‘organisational trust‘, which is a two-way street: Employers and managers must be able to trust their workforce, but workers must also be able to trust that management and the organisation will do the right thing by them.

The role of continuous monitoring (insider risk detection) systems and the critical path

Preceding paragraphs discussed the three main steps in the critical path, being personal predispositions, life stressors and concerning behaviors. Some of these may be visible to colleagues, such as an employee who is visibly angry. However, other indicators, such as accessing sensitive information, office access at odd hours, declining performance and engagement, may not be visible on the surface as ‘signs’ to co-workers.

Continous monitoring and evaluation tools, otherwise known as Insider Risk (Threat) Detection or Workforce Intelligence systems, are advanced analytics based solutions which integrate a variety of virtual (ICT), physical (e.g. access control badge data, shift rosters, employee performance reporting) and contextual information (e.g. employee is in a high risk role, information access is sensitive and not required in ordinary course of duty) in one central location.

Behavioural Analytics is typically marketed as a core component of software solutions on the market, although the way in which the behavioural analytics actually works may be a ‘black box’ with some vendors. These analytics tools are typically programmed to identify one or more indicators on the critical path, and generate ‘alerts’ or automated system notifications in response to an individual displaying the programmed indicators.

Most systems use some sort of identity masking, at least in the early stages of alert review and disposition, so that employees cannot be unncessarily targeted or vilified – at least until there is sufficient material evidence that suggests a problem which is sufficient to initate an investigation under the employer’s workplace policies.

Continuous monitoring is key to address behavioural change over time
Photo by Christina Morillo on

Continous monitoring systems require configuring for your organisation’s context

Importantly, as with any analytics-based intelligence or detection system, the system itself is only as good as what it is programmed to detect. Shaw and Sellers (2015) have this to say in relation to the blanket application of the Critical-Path Approach to every type of insider threat:

We do not suggest that this framework is a substitute for more specific risk evaluation methods, such as scales used for assessing violence risk, IP theft risk, or other specific insider activities. We suggest that the critical-path approach be used to detect the presence of general risk and the more specific scales be used to assess specific risk scenarios.

Shaw and Sellers (2015), Application of the Critical-Path Method
to Evaluate Insider Risks

This highlights the importance of ensuring your system is properly tuned to your organisation’s inherent risks, and could require multiple detection models, each of which focuses on a specific risk (e.g. sabotage, workplace violence). Models or rules used by these systems must be tuned to the organisation’s specific threats and risks, and configured in a way that reflects the organisation’s unique operating context.

The ‘garbage in, garbage out’ principle applies here: If your organisation only uses simple out of the box rules or detection models provided by the software vendor, it is unlikely these will detect the really critical risks to your business. Continous monitoring and evaluation for insider risks is an area which is developing quite rapidly, and is influenced by the convergence of cybersecurity with protective security and integrity more generally. I will discuss these continuous monitoring and evaluation concepts in more detail in future posts.

Further Reading

  • Centre for Development of Security Excellence [CDSE], (2022). Maximizing Organizational Trust, Defense Personnel and Security Research Center (PERSEREC), U.S. Government
  • Levy, F.K., Thompson, G.L, Wiest, J.D. (1963). The ABCs of the Critical Path Method, Process Management, Harvard Business Review, September 1963,
  • Shaw, E. and Sellers, L. (2015). Application of the Critical-Path Method to Evaluate Insider Risks, Studies in Intelligence Vol 59, No. 2 (June 2015), pp. 1-8, accessible here.

DISCLAIMER: All information presented on ForewarnedBlog is intended for general information purposes only. The content of ForewarnedBlog should not be considered legal or any other form of advice or opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Readers should consult their own advisers experts or lawyers on any specific questions they may have. Any reliance placed upon ForewarnedBlog is strictly at the reader’s own risk. The views expressed by the authors are entirely their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by, their respective employers. Refer here for full disclaimer.