If the thought of being employed by the United States government is something you have pondered for your future, you have likely taken a peek at the federal employment process. What a process it is! From searching out the best positions on usajobs.gov to creating the most amazing resume possible to applying to interviewing and then the dreaded background check.
What does a federal employment background check consist of? A federal employment background check is a bit more thorough than your standard employment background check. All applicants for federal positions are required to complete a questionnaire and undergo some type of a background check, either a suitability review or a security clearance. The goal of the federal employment background check is to ensure that you are reliable, trustworthy, and suitable for the position that you have applied for. There are multiple levels of security clearance, but in general, a federal employment background check will cover:
- A National Agency Check (NAC)
- Criminal history check
- Records search
- Credit check
- Written inquiries with past and current employers
- Residency check
- Citizenship check
- Inquiries with references
- Information that is specific to a particular government security clearance level
If a job with the federal government is an avenue you would like to travel, then this article has been designed with you in mind. Let’s get to digging!
What is a federal background check used for?
Federal background checks are often part of comprehensive government pre-employment screenings. However, federal background checks aren’t just reserved for governmental employees. Banking professionals who may potentially have access to extremely sensitive data and financial information, high-level executives, and those who may be employed in the medical field with access to children or the elderly could all potentially face the scrutiny of a federal background investigation.
Are all federal background checks the same?
Not all federal background investigations are the same. There are three tiers of federal background checks:
- Tier One: This is the most basic federal background investigation required for all new federal employees and contractors. It entails a National Agency Check (NAC) and a review of specific areas of an individual’s history.
- Tier Three: This is the federal background check for any employee with a Confidential or Secret security access level. It will include a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) as well as an in-depth credit review.
- Tier Five: This level of a background investigation is reserved for those employees who will need a Top Secret security clearance. It includes the same checks as those performed for Tiers One and Three, as well as investigations of a candidate’s spouse, family members, friends, and associates, interviews with listed references, and verification of a person’s place of birth.
Is suitability review the same as security clearance?
In short, the answer to this is “no”. A suitability review is not equivalent to a security clearance. All applicants for federal positions, from volunteers to paid positions, are required to undergo a suitability review.
Suitability vastly differs from whether a person’s education, experience, knowledge, and skills qualify them for a federal position. A suitability review evaluates the character traits and conduct of an individual to decide if that person is likely to act with integrity and efficiency in their position.
The type of investigation conducted for a suitability review will vary with the level of risk associated with the position:
- Low-Risk: positions involve duties that will have a very limited impact on the integrity of the hiring agency
- Moderate-Risk: duties associated with the position have the potential for a significant impact on the integrity of the hiring agency
- High-Risk: positions involve duties that can seriously impact the integrity and efficiency of the hiring agency.
Both Moderate- and High-Risk positions are regarded as Public Trust positions.
Your suitability review begins immediately after a conditional offer of employment is accepted. You will be required to fill out a “Standard Form (SF)”, submit to name and fingerprint checks, and consent to a credit check.
I understand! A suitability review first and… then a security check?
Your security clearance is something completely different than your suitability review, but you’ve already gathered that information. A security clearance is designed to access your eligibility to access classified national security information and involves an evaluation of whether or not you could potentially be a threat to national security.
A security clearance looks into the conduct and activities of your friends, relatives, and other contacts. It will typically involve an FBI reference check of all former employers, coworkers, friends, neighbors (so stop stealing Jim’s paper next door), schools you have attended, police records, and your credit history.
There are three levels of security clearances in the federal government:
- Confidential: information could cause minor damage to national security
- Secret: information could possibly cause serious damage to national security
- Top Secret: information could cause irreparable damage to national security
Security clearance decisions seek to determine the trustworthiness of an applicant. The security check will analyze what is deemed an adequate period of your life to affirm that you are an acceptable security risk. The number of years reviewed by the investigation directly correlates to the level of security clearance you are requesting and increases as the position’s level of security increases, from five years to ten years.
Who conducts the suitability and security checks?
In 2019, the Department of Defense (DOD) formed a new agency, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), to conduct all federal background checks. Background checks that require record checks, reference interviews, or other interviews are normally conducted by field investigators, who can be federal investigators or contracted. Some federal agencies, mainly the FBI and CIA, hold jurisdiction to conduct their own background checks and investigations.
Here are some expert tips on being a good civil servant!
What do I fill out to have my background check started?
The Standard Form (SF) that you will need to fill out to start your background check will vary from division to division, and even from position to position. If you would like to view the various SF forms, simply click here and choose Standard Forms to view the various forms that we’ll discuss.
A few Standard Forms that you may see are:
- SF-85: “Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions” is used to request NACI (National Agency Check with Inquiries) for Low-Risk positions.
- SF-85P: “Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions” is used for Moderate-Risk positions.
- SF-86: “Questionnaire for National Security Positions” is used for High-Risk Public Trust positions and all three levels of security clearance.
How long will my federal background check take?
Suitability reviews, background checks, or security clearances do not begin until you are given a provisional offer for employment and accepted the offer. Once that occurs, the real wait begins. A NACI can take two to three months and a Secret, or Top Secret, security clearance can take anywhere from six months to a year. (Meaning, do not immediately leave your current employer just because you have been given a provisional offer for federal employment!)
What if my federal background check reveals some negative information?
Unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” type of answer for this question. When performing a federal background investigation, the government takes a holistic approach by reviewing not only the past but the current, with a thorough review of your service records and job performance. With faced with negative results, the Department of Defense will base their decision on the nature of the information found, including:
- The nature and severity of the conduct
- Any circumstances surrounding said conduct
- The dates at which the incident(s) occurred
- Contributing socio-economic factors and conditions
- Any and all attempts at habilitation (the learning and mastery of new skills)
Negative information doesn’t automatically disqualify you from employment. Let’s review a few things that can automatically disqualify you from federal employment.
What are a few common disqualifiers (and how do I avoid them?)
Disqualifiers can prevent you from gaining employment because they raise concerns about your ability to handle the duties associated with your position or obtain the necessary security clearances. A few common disqualifiers are:
- Citizenship: Most positions in the federal government almost always require applicants to be a United States citizen or an individual who owes permanent allegiance to the U.S. (a naturalized citizen). This is because you must have citizenship to secure certain security clearances.
- Dual citizenship: These circumstances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and are often required to relinquish their foreign passport or renounce their foreign citizenship.
- Residency requirements: Candidates who have been outside the United States for more than two of the past five years will be barred from federal employment. Only federal or military employees serving overseas, or their immediate families, are exempt from this requirement.
- Drug/Substance use: Another issue that will automatically put you out of the running is the current use (within one year of application) of any illicit substance. This rule was set by the Bond Amendment, which states that those who are addicted to a controlled substance, whether illegal or prescription, cannot be allowed access to restricted data.
- Criminal history: Do not automatically assume that if you have a history of criminal offense or time in prison you will be disqualified for federal employment. The specific nature of crimes committed, how long ago the offenses occurred, and whether or not you have shown to be rehabilitated will all play a role in determining if your criminal background will impact your employment. However, certain crimes will automatically disqualify you from some types of government work.
- Debt/Bankruptcy: Contrary to popular belief, there is no minimum credit score required for federal employment. The main use of your credit history is to show that you have been generally able to comply with your financial obligations. This is extremely important in employment positions where you could be handling money and is also considered an indicator of your character. If you have a long history of unpaid debts and bankruptcy, you could be disqualified from federal employment.
- General inconsistencies: If your federal background check reveals inconsistencies in your application, you will be disqualified from employment. This means that honesty (even if it isn’t the most glorious and glowing) is the only policy. Never alter, oversell, or omit information on your application. In most cases, the fact that you attempt to mislead investigators is more detrimental than the information you intended to hide.
Federal employment background investigations are intended to ensure that all federal employees are loyal, trustworthy, reliable, and have good character. If you have worries about any facet of your own history and fear that they may impede you from attaining the job your dream of, you can always do your own background check to see what types of information may show up. By doing so, you can be at the ready to discuss any negative information or potential concerns before they are unveiled by investigators.
Will my social media accounts be reviewed in a federal background check?
Social media posts are not off-limits. Regardless of the privacy settings for your social media accounts, those tweets you made can come into play in the hiring process (SO BE MINDFUL!).
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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Civil servants are some of the hardest working, most generous people I know. I have been passionate about all types of civil service career paths for years now and enjoy sharing everything I continue to learn about them.
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