An Overview of the Government Employee Background Check


The federal government is a vast organization overseeing a civilian workforce that numbers more than 2.1 million people. From individuals working directly for the executive branch as White House staffers to the hundreds of thousands of people working in dozens of minor sub-agencies, these people keep the wheels of government turning. Yet the government does not and cannot hire anyone that walks in off the street looking for a job—this is no "mom and pop" fast food restaurant. To become a government employee, a background check is a vital part of the hiring process.

Government jobs can expose individual employees to a wide range of potentially sensitive information, and opportunities for fraud abound. Misusing government funds, mishandling taxpayer information, exposing private data, and even creating potential national security risks are possible consequences of hiring the wrong people to work in the government. 

Unlike a regular background check, vetting for government work goes much further. For a rank-and-file employee working a desk job in the Commerce Department, the experience can be straightforward—with a few steps beyond employment in the private sector. However, these checks go deeper than others for other positions, especially those requiring a security clearance. The good news is that if you're asked to submit to the background check process, you've already received a conditional offer of employment because of the federal Fair Chance Act.

The federal background check looks at far more than your criminal history. What the procedure involves can even vary between departments. Understanding what government agencies will consider and what you should expect can simplify the process. These painstaking efforts can initially seem daunting, from citizenship requirements to individual assessments of past crimes or drug abuse. Let's break down what you need to know about what the government looks for when hiring new employees.

Assessments of Applicant Suitability

Let's begin with a broad overview of how government agencies determine suitability. This is not a measure of how qualified you are to perform the job; those assessments take place separately. Instead, suitability revolves around determining whether someone can act with the level of integrity and responsibility the job role demands. Suitability assessments categorize applicants into more specific background check processes based on those demands.

The first question the government asks itself after offering you a job is simple: is this position designated sensitive or non-sensitive? In other words, will it involve potentially privileged access to systems, data, or controlled processes where misuse could cause harm? Or is the job in question a more average, perhaps clerical role?

Non-sensitive roles fall into one of three boxes: Low, Moderate, or High-Risk roles. Risk levels relate to the level of damage malfeasance by an employee could cause to the agency's work and reputation. Wrongdoing in high-risk roles, for example, can negatively impact the agency's ability to serve the public safely. The classification of your non-sensitive job role will determine the type of background procedure you'll experience.

If you intend to work in a position classified as sensitive, there is a separate process for obtaining the necessary security clearances.

Determining Security Clearance

Some jobs in the government necessarily involve using classified information as a part of the work. If this information were to leak to the public or foreign adversaries, it could represent a risk to national security. The exposure of classified information can do irreparable harm to the way the government operates in many ways. 

Therefore, applicants under consideration for sensitive roles must undergo a separate and even more thorough vetting process. Once you receive a conditional offer and submit your Standard Forms, this process begins. How does it work?

The agency hiring the applicant called the "sponsoring agency," reviews the position in question and determines what level of clearance the applicant must have to work in that role. Higher clearance requirements demand a more in-depth background check. The three clearance levels to know include:

At the highest levels of government secrecy, there are additional subsets of the Top-Secret classification, such as Sensitive Compartmented Information. Access to TS-SCI information requires additional vetting beyond regular Top-Secret clearance.

Once the sponsoring agency classifies the role, they refer the investigation to the relevant government agency. Most often, that is the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, or DCSA.

The Process for Adjudicating Security Clearances

When evaluating an individual for a security clearance, the government examines an individual's history over years. A Top-Secret investigation will look further back into an applicant's life than a Confidential investigation. 

Confidential and Secret investigations have a lookback period of five years and use the National Agency Check with Law and Credit. Top Secret clearances require the Single Scope Background Investigation, which looks at the most recent ten years of an individual's life. Ultimately, the goal of these investigations is simple: determine if someone is trustworthy and stable enough to preserve government secrecy. 

These reviews are highly subjective, far more so than private sector background checks, and what disqualifies individuals for clearance may vary from case to case. Currently, the law spells out 13 distinct areas of investigation when granting clearances. These include:

Honesty and a forthright attitude towards disclosing information can make the path to clearance simpler, but there are no definitive rules to guarantee who will or won't pass this type of background check. Without clearance, an applicant’s conditional offer be revoked.

Which Agencies Conduct Background Checks for a Government Employee?

Who has the responsibility for completing a government employee background check? The answer has changed recently. For many years, the Office of Personnel Management was primarily responsible for executing background checks through its sub-department, the National Background Investigations Bureau. 

However, OPM no longer oversees this duty as of 2019. Since that year, the task of background checks has fallen to the newly-created Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, operated as a part of the Department of Defense. The additional DOD resources contributed to deploying a faster system to reduce staffing shortfalls. 

Although the DCSA performs most government background checks, there are exceptions. For example, if you apply to work within the Executive Branch in a position either classed as "sensitive" or with the need for a security clearance, DCSA does not have jurisdiction. Instead, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) carries out these investigations. Similarly, agencies such as the FBI and the CIA typically directly handle background checks for prospective employees.

Standard Forms To Expect

When you receive a conditional job offer from the government, the background check and security clearance adjudication processes can begin once you provide the government with answers to a wide range of questions. The government calls these questionnaires Standard Forms. Depending on the role you seek, you will need to complete one of the following:

These questionnaires ask you to voluntarily disclose a wide range of information the investigating agent will use for follow-ups.

Assessing Potential Drug Use or Burdensome Personal Debt

When applicants fill out the SF-85 or the SF-86, they will encounter questions far more probing and personal than any private sector job might ask. Some find it surprising to be asked directly about their past illegal drug usage or to disclose their personal debt burden. This information can be critical in determining trustworthiness for the most sensitive positions. 

Applicants can expect questions about whether they have used illegal drugs in the past year or longer or supplied or possessed such drugs. A history of shirking debts or poor financial management may also play into the consideration process, and a credit check may occur. Past drug use and prior bankruptcy are not automatic disqualifiers for a government job. Background investigators consider individual circumstances and can discuss the information with applicants to learn more about each reported incident. 

The Importance of Honesty in Your Application

Being forthcoming on the Standard Forms can be intimidating, even for those applying to low-risk positions. However, being as open and honest as possible is essential. Although applicants may worry that the outcome will be disqualifying on its own, dishonesty will undoubtedly result in a rejection. When applying for high-level security clearances, lying during the process or falsifying records could even be grounds for criminal charges.

Government background checks are thorough, and investigators will look for inconsistencies between the facts and what you reported on your Standard Forms. Often, an event's omission is more likely grounds for rejection than the event itself. Demonstrating your honesty and integrity through openness to this process is a credit in itself. 

Citizenship Requirements for Government Work

You will need to verify your citizenship status as part of the application and background check process. In nearly every case of federal employment, United States citizenship is a mandatory requirement. Naturalized citizenship is acceptable. Non-citizens typically may only apply when no other qualified applicants exist and must obtain separate work authorization. 

What About Individuals With Dual Citizenship?

Many people hold dual citizenship, with legal status in the United States and a foreign country. Dual citizenship creates unique considerations during the vetting process, and as such, all dual citizens applying for federal employment undergo an individualized review, which can cause delays. Considerations often include:

If you are a dual citizen preparing to apply to work with the federal government, be aware that you may need to renounce your non-US citizenship or surrender your passport as part of the process.

The Impacts of Prior Foreign Residency

If an applicant has spent more than two of the last five years living outside the United States, the federal government will not consider them for most job opportunities. Some agencies impose even stricter requirements of up to three out of the five preceding years. There are exceptions for individuals serving in the armed forces, government contractors, and study abroad programs.

How Long Does a Government Employee Background Check Typically Take?

The government prefers to be thorough rather than swift when selecting candidates, especially for more sensitive positions. As such, the federal vetting process can take a long time, especially in comparison to private sector background checks. In private employment, the process takes only a few weeks for very thorough checks except in cases of organizational backlog. In the federal government, the timelines often stretch to months.

Even low-level, non-sensitive positions requiring only a NACI check can take up to three months. For someone seeking a Top-Secret clearance, the process may last as long as nine months and rarely fewer than two. Inaccuracies and discrepancies can add even more time to the process. A government contractor employee background check may take less time since the contracting business may conduct its own vetting, with some exceptions for sensitive work.

Be as accurate as possible when completing your Standard Forms. Know what you expect the government to find and be ready to explain any unusual circumstances. Choose your references carefully. When possible, connect with local law enforcement to have a fingerprint card taken and submit this to your sponsoring agency. Ultimately, your only action to speed up the process is to be thorough in your responses.

Navigating Conflicts of Interest for Lawyers

The government employs and hires lawyers at an incredible rate. Nearly every agency has extensive legal teams assembled to help with litigation, interpretation of agency responsibilities, and more. For legal professionals applying to work with the government, disclosing potential conflicts of interest early in the vetting process may help you avoid delays. 

For example, someone with experience representing a significant beef producer could have potential conflicts if they intend to work with the USDA. Lawyers must carefully consider these possibilities before applying. Raising a flag early ensures the agency can determine if it will impact your suitability.

Policies Specific to the US Department of Justice (DOJ)

Applying to work with the Department of Justice involves submitting to a suitability and security review similar to the one used by other agencies. However, because the DOJ sees many interns and temporary employees, a complete Background Investigation only becomes mandatory after completing six months of work. Instead, a less intensive background check involving criminal history, drug testing, and other elements serves as a stopgap.

Understanding Additional Steps for Working With the US Attorney's Office (UAO)

As a part of the Department of Justice, the US Attorney's Office uses the same procedures as the DOJ but goes further in some cases. Each US Attorney's Office may choose how stringent to be when hiring individuals. This may include using one of the more in-depth Standard Forms during the vetting process, or a USAO may create their own background questionnaire. If you intend to apply to work in this government area, be prepared to encounter these extra measures.

What To Expect From Other Government Agencies

Some government agencies, such as the CIA, have additional specific vetting procedures. This may include polygraph tests, private interviews, and follow-ups for more information about answers provided on Standard Forms. Completing these extra steps quickly contributes to expediting the vetting process.

At times, delays may occur that are beyond the individual's control. This was the case in 2015 when a major hack hit the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and millions of individual applicant questionnaires were leaked to the hackers. In responding to the hack, the OPM put all background checks on hold. Nearly 90% of all federal background check work came to a sudden halt, and it took weeks to restore service to an acceptable level. 

The security risks revealed in this 2016 incident, and the subsequent cascading backlog of background checks ultimately led to the disestablishment of the National Background Check Investigation Bureau. Established in 2015, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency took over in 2019. Since then, the DCSA has handled most federal vetting, including for other agencies such as the FBI.

Checks Using Terrorist and Sanctions Watch Lists

The government checks your name and known aliases against terror watch lists, sanctions watch lists, and international fugitive registries as part of the vetting. 

Some private sector workers may wonder if they must submit to a government background check because of a required watch list check. Although this type of investigation is uncommon in the private sector, it is not entirely unusual. As part of post-9/11 security measures, the government already requires watch list checks on employees regulated by the Department of Transportation. 

These regulations apply to many of those who work with airlines and commercial aviation. Efforts to extend these checks to other mass transit workers have so far not succeeded. However, this type of vetting differs from the pipeline to government work.

What About Government Contractors?

The vetting of employees of government contractors has historically been the responsibility of the contractors themselves. In most cases, such individuals do not require security clearances and thus do not submit to the same formal process as direct employees of the federal government. When an individual does need clearance to work as a contractor, the usual Standard Forms questionnaire and procedure will apply.

Even outside the federal process, government contractor background checks should be rigorous and thorough regardless of the applicable regulations. Failing to do so can still create risks, such as when thousands of contractor records fell into the hands of hackers because of a third-party data breach. Contractors must also now abide by the federal Fair Chance Act, which requires the provision of a conditional job offer before any background investigation can occur.


What goes into a government background check?

Many elements make up the government background check. In an average case, this process will include scrutiny of your criminal records, checking your credit, submitting to a drug test, filling out extensive personal questionnaires, answering questions about your forms, and waiting for investigators to contact your references. A separate investigatory process takes place if you must qualify for a security clearance.

What are some disqualifications for a Top-Secret clearance?

The government decides on disqualifications on a case-by-case basis. Some of the most common ways applicants can disqualify themselves include carrying a substantial amount of bad debt, recent habitual abuse of illegal drugs, mental instability, and recent severe or violent felonies. Concerns about your allegiance to a foreign nation, including dual citizenship, can also disqualify you.

Do most federal jobs require a security clearance?

No, the majority of federal jobs do not require a security clearance. You are more likely to need clearance for employment in the intelligence community or at the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense. In most other cases, you will only need to undergo the suitability review.

What will an FBI background check entail?

An FBI background check involves submitting the SF-86 form with ten years of personal information reported accurately. It also requires the submission of a fingerprint card to check against records submitted to the government from certain law enforcement agencies nationwide. A security clearance review will also be a part of the process, as most agency employees will need to access secure information.

Will you pass a government background check with a misdemeanor?

Because of the federal Fair Chance Act, every applicant has the opportunity to demonstrate their suitability for an open position in the government before submitting to a background check. A misdemeanor on your criminal record is not an instant barrier to employment with the government. 

In most cases, it is unlikely to be a serious issue, especially if the crime occurred many years ago and bears no relation to the position you seek today. It is even possible to obtain a security clearance with a simple misdemeanor. Specific policies vary. For example, positions involving firearms cannot hire someone with a domestic violence misdemeanor.

What is a NACI background check used for?

A NACI background check or National Agency Check with Inquiries, is the type of vetting process used for non-sensitive, low-risk roles in the government. In other words, it is the average or "generic" process for going through a federal background check. A NACI check involves checking the FBI criminal database, government lists, and other sources of criminal history information. NACIs also involve letters of inquiry sent to law enforcement in your local community, prior employers, and educational institutions you've attended. Some NACI checks, such as for the Department of Defense, may include a credit check.

What does a law enforcement background check consist of?

State, county, and local law enforcement agencies use background check processes of their own design. Typically, these are quite different from a federal government employee background check, but some elements remain the same. One such similarity is connecting with references, prior employers, and others who know you to develop a clear understanding of your suitability. Like the government, these agencies seek to understand whether you can be responsible and trustworthy in a position of authority. Expect thorough criminal background checks, a credit check, and a drug test.

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