Social engineering penetration testing is the practice of attempting typical social engineering scams on a company’s employees to ascertain the organization's level of vulnerability to that type of exploit.
Social engineering pen testing is designed to test employees' adherence to the security policies and practices defined by management. Testing should provide a company with information about how easily an intruder could convince employees to break security rules or divulge or provide access to sensitive information. The company should also get a better understanding of how successful their security training is and how the organization stacks up, security-wise, in comparison to their peers.
Social engineering testing may be conducted as part of more comprehensive penetration tests (pen tests). Like ethical hacking methods, the tests themselves generally replicate the types of efforts that real-world intruders use.
Physical testing, for example, might involve a tester trying to enter a secured building at a time when many employees are entering, perhaps talking on a phone and carrying multiple items to see if someone just holds the door open rather than adhering to the approved procedure of letting the door close after them so any person following must use an employee card or badge for entry.
Phishing exploits, a common social engineering method, are often used to test employee vulnerability. Testers might send an email purportedly from someone in management asking the employee to open an unexpected attachment, provide sensitive information or visit an unapproved website.
A tester might call employees pretending to be someone in IT, providing them with new passwords and telling them to change their current passwords to the new ones.
See Valerie Thomas' presentation on social engineering pen testing: