Risk Register: How to Build One + Examples

A risk register is a log that lists potential risks that could impact your organization and a response plan to help you stay ahead of those threats.
Troy Fine

by Troy Fine

October 19, 2023
Illustration of a scale showing different levels of risk and a clipboard.

In the last year, 54% of organizations say they’ve experienced a cyberattack, with the finance and healthcare sectors being the top two industries at risk. Many organizations know they need to take risks seriously, but they may not be aware of common threats their industry faces and how to handle them. Having a risk register ensures your organization has a plan of action for staying ahead of potentially costly threats. 

In this post, we’ll cover what a risk register is, how to create and use one, and helpful examples to help you understand how your organization can stay vigilant against threats. 

What Is a Risk Register?

A risk register is a log that lists all the potential risks that could impact your organization and how you plan to respond. The purpose of a risk register is to help you get a complete picture of your threat landscape to ensure your organization has risk management processes in place.

Your risk register may include risks that could affect your business, like cyberattacks and negative publicity, or risks associated with your adherence to compliance frameworks or other industry regulations.

Why Do You Need a Risk Register?

A risk register is necessary because it allows you to stay ahead of potential threats before they occur. By identifying potential risks, your team can create a plan of action to implement should the incident ever happen.

Three benefits of a risk register.

Simply put, a risk register makes it easier to: 

  • Identify and track risks that might derail your organization.

  • Decide which risks are worth acting on (and which ones aren’t).

  • Proactively plan how to address the biggest risks to help your team. 

  • Implement mitigation plans to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

Leaders and cybersecurity professionals within your organization will typically use the risk register as a reference to identify and prioritize cybersecurity threats and move toward proactive security. 

If your organization is required to keep a record of risk management activities, your risk register can help create an audit trail. Ultimately, a risk register is crucial for any organization, especially those required to meet regulatory compliance obligations. 

What Do You Include in a Risk Register?

A list of the 10 most important elements to include in a risk register.

A risk register should include a description of each risk and the probability and impact it could have. In addition, your risk register should always include the following components:   

  • Risk identification: This includes the risk name or identification number. These identification numbers help organize your company’s risks into different categories so they are easier to locate and track.  

  • Risk description: This is a brief description of the risk and why it’s an issue. 

  • Risk category: Categorizing your risks can help your team identify the risk within the risk register, making it easier to understand who will be responsible for mitigation. For example, you may categorize your risk register by departments—like HR, operations, or IT risks.  

  • Risk ownership: This includes the person or persons who will be responsible for managing and overseeing the risk response. 

  • Risk probability: This gauges how likely the risk is to occur. You can categorize each risk as highly unlikely, unlikely, likely, or very likely. You can also use a numerical scale, with one being highly unlikely and four being highly likely, for example. 

  • Risk impact: This highlights and measures the potential impact of the risk, helping your team understand which risks take precedence. When rating the potential impact, use a simple scale that includes ratings like extremely low, low, medium, high, and extremely high.  

  • Risk priority: This takes risk probability and risk analysis into account to measure the priority level of the risk. Again, a simple number scale will work—one means extremely low, two means low, three means medium, four means high, and five means extremely high. 

  • Risk response: Your response or mitigation plan will detail how you plan to handle the risk. This is a key component of a risk register, so your solution should be clearly outlined. 

  • Risk status: This field of your risk register includes the status of the risk—open, in progress, ongoing, or closed—to help determine whether or not the risk has been handled. 

  • Notes: You can also include a notes section to include any additional notes or details that will help team members better understand the risk and mitigation plan. 

How to Create a Risk Register

It's important for your team to understand each step of the risk register creation process so they're well-versed in how to handle potential threats. Following a proper risk management framework is key. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework is a good guideline that follows five main areas of focus: identify, protect, detect, respond, and recover. 

With that framework in mind, we’ve outlined seven steps to create a successful risk register for your organization. 

1. Identify Areas at Risk

The first step in creating a risk register is identifying your organization’s potential risks. These may include problems your organization has dealt with in the past, upcoming threats, or common risks in your industry. 

When identifying risks, consider the following categories: 

  • Operational risks: risks that impact your organization’s day-to-day operations 

  • Financial risks: risks that impact your organization’s finances 

  • Reputational risks: risks that can impact your organization’s reputation, integrity, and credibility 

  • Strategic risks: risks that pose a threat to your organization’s goals and success 

  • Compliance risks: risks related to non-compliance with industry laws, regulations, and policies 

It’s always a good idea to get other team members, partners, and stakeholders involved in the identification process to ensure you’re considering all potential risks. 

2. Describe the Risks

Next, you’ll want to create a brief description of each risk. It should detail what the risk entails and why it’s a potential threat to your organization. Be as specific as possible so those looking at the risk register can get a full picture of the risk and its importance. 

3. Rate the Risks

Ask yourself: How serious is each risk? At this stage, you’ll want to create a risk rating. The risk probability rating determines how likely the risk is to occur, and the risk analysis rating determines the potential impact that risk could have. 

Here is an example of a rating scale for risk probability: 

  • Highly unlikely 

  • Unlikely 

  • Likely 

  • Highly likely  

For your risk analysis, your scale may look like this: 

  • Extremely low

  • Low

  • Medium

  • High

  • Extremely high

You might also consider other risk assessment methodologies to help you get a better understanding of the potential threat and its impact. 

4. Prioritize Your Risks

From there, you can start prioritizing each risk based on the ratings in the previous step and how serious their impact is on your organization. How will the risks on your list influence operations if they become an issue? 

Your risk priority scale will prioritize the risk according to the risk probability and risk analysis ratings. Similar to the risk analysis rating scale, you can determine priority on a low, medium, or high scale.

For example, if the risk probability is unlikely and the risk analysis is low, the risk priority would probably be low since it’s not as harmful to your organization and doesn’t require immediate action. 

This scale can help your organization make sure you have the proper resources and processes in place to carry out your mitigation plan based on the level of priority. 

5. Create a Response Plan

Perhaps the most important piece of a risk register is your response plan. This determines how you will respond to the risk — will you choose to accept the risk, mitigate the risk, transfer the risk, or avoid the risk?

For example, you may choose to transfer the risk to a third party like an insurance company. 

Including responses in your register will help you demonstrate an awareness of not just the threats themselves but how you can manage them. 

Outline the exact steps your team will need to take to mitigate the issue. If any additional documentation or information is needed to support the mitigation efforts, make sure to include it.  

6. Assign a Risk Owner 

Designate a risk owner for each risk who will be responsible for managing and overseeing the identified risk. All risk owners should be appropriately trained on risk owner responsibilities so they feel confident managing and reporting the risk.

7. Include Additional Notes

Lastly, you can add a notes section to each risk so you have a place to add any additional information that may be helpful in understanding the risk and response plan. 

Once you create your risk register, make sure to keep it somewhere accessible for review, like a spreadsheet, a project management system, or an internal database. 

A risk register isn’t a static document—it should be updated as regularly as risks change for your organization. It can also be revisited on a quarterly or biannual basis to ensure the risks and their prioritizations are still accurate. 

Risk Register Examples

A risk register is essential for any business facing potential threats so employees and stakeholders know how to handle each situation. To paint a picture of how to create a risk register, we’ve included three industry examples below. 

Example 1: Finance

An example of a risk register in the finance industry.
  • Risk identification: Data breach

  • Risk description: Unauthorized access to sensitive customer information and financial records leading to serious legal and financial damage and disrupting operations. 

  • Risk category: Data Security  

  • Risk ownership: Mike Smith 

  • Risk probability: Likely 

  • Risk impact: High 

  • Risk priority: High 

  • Risk response: Implement data encryption at rest and in transit, reinforce user authentication procedures, and develop an incident response plan to notify affected customers. 

  • Risk status: Ongoing  

  • Notes: Schedule regular security audits.  

Example 2: Software

An example of a risk register in the software industry.
  • Risk identification: End-user engagement 

  • Risk description: Poor user engagement during development leading to potentially dissatisfied customers and loss of revenue. 

  • Risk category: User Experience  

  • Risk ownership: Stacy Jones

  • Risk probability: Likely 

  • Risk impact: High

  • Risk priority: High 

  • Risk response: Conduct beta testing and run user surveys prior to launch to discover areas for improvement.  

  • Risk status: Open

  • Notes: Continue to monitor user feedback and make updates where necessary.

Example 3: Healthcare

An example of a risk register in the healthcare industry.
  • Risk identification: Staff shortage 

  • Risk description: Staffing shortages due to employee turnover resulting in longer wait times for patients, a decrease in quality of care, and employee burnout.  

  • Risk category: Human Resources 

  • Risk ownership: Mike Smith 

  • Risk probability: Likely 

  • Risk impact: High  

  • Risk priority: High 

  • Risk response: Hire temporary staff to fill in and create a flexible scheduling system to maintain a healthy schedule with existing employees. Improve recruiting efforts by offering competitive pay and compensation packages to attract and retain employees. 

  • Risk status: Ongoing  

  • Notes: Provide all employees access to resources and tools to prevent burnout.  

How Drata Can Help You Reduce Risks + Stay Compliant

A risk register plays a key role in risk management—ensuring security and mitigating potentially catastrophic consequences for your organization. Be sure to review the information in your risk register regularly and make updates and changes as risks continue to evolve. 

Automation can make this process even easier. To learn more about how to automate your processes, schedule a demo with our team today.

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Troy Fine
Troy Fine
Troy Fine is a 10-year former auditor, now Director of Compliance Advisory Services at Drata. He advises customers on building sound cybersecurity risk management programs that meet security compliance requirements. Troy is a CPA, CISA, CISSP, and CMMC Provisional Assessor. His areas of expertise include, GRC, SOC 2 audits, SOC 2+ examinations, CMMC, NIST 800-171, NIST 800-53, Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404 compliance, HITRUST, HIPAA, ISO 27001, and third-party risk management assessments.
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