How to manage external users

Sanjeev NC

Let's face it – the days of working in a perfectly contained office bubble are gone. Today, companies team up with freelancers, vendors, and partner organizations.

Picture this: Susan, a project manager, needs a graphic designer ASAP. She finds someone great online, but IT takes days to set him up with access. Meanwhile, Susan's tempted to just email the important files. We've all seen this play out.

To stay competitive, companies need to tap into the expertise and resources of external players. Think about it: vendors who specialize in specific tools, skilled contractors with niche knowledge, partners who enhance your offerings, and even clients who need direct access to project updates. This kind of collaboration has become vital for success  in many industries.

However, this open door brings a whole new set of challenges for IT teams. Imagine your company's network like a highly organized workspace. Suddenly, you're inviting guests in to help, but they don't know your rules, where the sensitive tools are kept, or even how to use some of your equipment safely. The potential for lost data, accidental leaks, or security breaches grows with each external user. It's enough     to make any IT pro sweat!

Let’s understand the challenges IT teams face in these scenarios and what they can do about it.

Who are the “external users”?

An "external user" isn't just one type of person. This term covers a whole range of individuals and groups who aren't traditional employees and need varying degrees of access to your company's systems.

Vendors and Suppliers

Companies providing services may need access to:

  • Inventory management systems to check stock levels and fulfill orders.

  • Order placement tools to submit purchase requests and track deliveries.

  • Communication platforms (like email or collaboration software)           to coordinate logistics and troubleshoot issues.

Contractors and Freelancers

These individuals offer specialized skills on a project basis. Think software developers, designers, marketing consultants, etc. They often need access to:

  • Relevant project files (documents, code repositories, design mockups).

  • Communication channels (email, project management tools, chat platforms) to collaborate with internal teams and stay updated.

  • Potential development environments or testing platforms for completing tasks.


Companies you team up with for strategic initiatives, joint product development, or shared marketing efforts. They may require access to:

  • Shared systems like customer relationship management (CRM) or project management tools for coordinated efforts.

  • Client data if the partnership involves working directly with your clients.

  • Sensitive intellectual property like source code or product designs.


Sometimes, your clients might need direct access to:

  • Project management platforms to track progress, provide feedback, and collaborate on tasks.

  • File-sharing systems to securely upload or download project deliverables.

  • Even your internal network in very specific scenarios, but with tightly controlled access to minimize security risks.

Regulatory Bodies and Auditors

Government agencies or industry auditors might need temporary access to:

  • Records and data repositories relevant to the specific audit                 or investigation.

  • Internal systems to verify compliance with regulations.

Each category of users brings unique challenges. Vendors and suppliers might have legitimate needs to access sensitive data, but managing those access rights while adhering to data privacy regulations can be a tightrope walk. Contractors and freelancers may present a lower baseline risk but often require access to a wider range of collaboration tools, increasing the potential attack surface. Partners can be long-term collaborators, but their access needs can be intricate, depending on the nature of the partnership. Even clients, while needing project updates, introduce a concern about managing their visibility into internal systems.

What challenges does it bring to the IT team?

Here is how managing inactive user accounts can present challenges to the IT team:

Security Risks

External users can be tremendous assets to your team, but they also introduce new security vulnerabilities. Here's a closer look at some of the most common challenges:

  • Data exposure: Remember the marketing intern who accidentally stumbled upon the company's salary spreadsheets? Turns out, they had leftover access from a previous project, leading to some awkward conversations. Overly broad permissions are like leaving your most valuables out on the coffee table – sooner or later, someone's going  to take a peek.

  • Vulnerability to phishing: External users are often targeted because hackers assume they might be less savvy with security protocols. Imagine Sarah, a vendor, getting tricked into clicking a dodgy link in    a fake invoice email. Before you know it, malware's spreading through your network.

  • Difficulty in tracking and auditing: Think of your network as a busy library. If you don't have proper records, how do you know who borrowed that confidential book, and if they returned it on time? Same goes for data and systems accessed by external parties. Not having clear audit trails is a nightmare when you're trying to investigate a security incident.

Operational Overhead

Managing external users creates extra work for your IT team. Here's how:

  • Onboarding and offboarding: Each time a new contractor joins, does your IT team spend hours setting up accounts and permissions manually? And what about when they leave? Forgetting to revoke access is a security risk, but chasing down project managers to confirm who's still active is a huge time suck.

  • Strain on IT resources: Think of your IT helpdesk as air traffic control. Now, every time an external user runs into any login trouble or needs  a new file shared, they create a support ticket that gets mixed in with your internal issues. Your team ends up playing password reset and file-sharing assistant, distracting them from more critical tasks.

Compliance Woes

Data privacy regulations are becoming stricter, and external users add another layer of complexity:

  • Struggle to adhere to industry regulations: Those data protection laws like GDPR and HIPAA are no joke. One accidental data leak by an external vendor can result in hefty fines and a major blow to your company's reputation.

  • Legal risks of breaches: Imagine your client's data gets exposed through a poorly secured contractor's account. Lawsuits, anyone?  This isn't just an IT problem; it's a massive legal risk for the entire company.

Lack of Visibility

Without clear insight into who your external users are and what they're doing, managing them effectively becomes impossible:

  • Inability to easily track who external users: "Wait, who was that consultant we used six months ago? Did we have a signed NDA?   What did they have access to?" Sound familiar? If you can't see what's happening, you can't manage it effectively.

  • Difficulty revoking access: Ghost accounts are cybersecurity nightmares waiting to happen. That terminated vendor whose access lingers? That's a ticking time bomb.

On the flipside, there are challenges on the external users’ side as well. Think about it: long delays waiting for IT to grant access stifles that freelance designer's creativity and slows down the project for your internal team. Complicated login procedures or having to jump through hoops to get simple resources leads to frustrated external partners who might think twice about working with you again. This doesn't just hurt productivity - it can damage those important external relationships, impacting your reputation and bottom line.

How do we effectively manage external users?

While it’s clear that external users are essential to the business, it’s up    to us in IT to manage them without compromising on security. Here are some strategies and best practices that you can follow.

Develop a Comprehensive External User Policy

1. Define and Categorize Your Users. Start by outlining the different types of external users you interact with (refer back to the "Who are these external users?").

2. Set Clear Guidelines. For each category, specify:

  • What access do these users typically need?

  • What security measures are mandatory (multi-factor authentication, specific password protocols, etc.)?

  • What actions are unacceptable (e.g., downloading certain data types, sharing login credentials).

3. Schedule Reviews. Set regular intervals to update the policy (at least annually, or when major regulations change).

Adopt a Zero-Trust Approach

1. Least Privilege is Key: Each external user should get the absolute minimum access to perform their job. Periodically review access rights and revoke what's no longer needed.

2. Demand Authentication. Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all external accounts. Consider solutions like Okta, Duo Security, or Microsoft Authenticator.

Implement Robust Identity and Access Management (IAM)

1. Centralize Control: Use an IAM platform to manage the lifecycle of external user accounts (provisioning, access changes, deprovisioning). Tools like SailPoint, OneLogin, and Azure Active Directory are popular options.

2. Enforce Roll-Based Permissions. Avoid granular permissions in favor of role-based access. This simplifies management and minimizes accidental 'over-permissioning'.

Prioritize Security Awareness Training

1. Tailor Training. Don't just give external users the same training as staff. Focus on common threats (phishing, password hygiene) and your company's specific policies.

2. Make it Engaging. Gamified training or short videos are more likely to be absorbed than long manuals.

3. Simulate and Test: Services like KnowBe4 let you run realistic phishing simulations on both internal and external users.

Tools & Tech that can help

Vendor/Partner Management Solutions
These platforms centralize information about your external partners, streamline communication, and manage contracts and agreements. They provide a single source of truth on who you're working with and the terms of engagement.

Examples: Vendora, Precoro, Scout RFP

Privileged Access Management (PAM) Tools
PAM tools offer tight control over sensitive accounts and assets.
They allow you to:

  • Vault passwords, so external users don't need direct access.

  • Monitor and record privileged user sessions for auditing.

  • Grant temporary, elevated access for specific tasks without disclosing the actual credentials.

Examples: CyberArk, BeyondTrust, Thycotic Secret Server.

Managing external users is a challenge for IT teams. On one side, you have critical data and systems that need protection. On the other, the need to collaborate with external partners is essential for business success.

By focusing on clear guidelines, sensible automation, and ongoing training, you can create a system where those freelancers, vendors, and clients feel like a natural extension of your team – without compromising your company's data and resources.