What You Should Know About Background Investigations

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Content from the Office of Personnel Management

Q.: Why are you going to investigate me? I'm only applying for an entry-level job, and I don't need a security clearance.

A.: The interests of national security require that all persons privileged to be employed in the departments and agencies of the government shall be reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States. This means that the appointment of each civilian employee in any department or agency of the government is subject to investigation. The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the nature of the position and the degree of harm that an individual in that position could cause.

The requirement to be investigated applies whether or not the position requires a security clearance (in order to have access to classified national security information).

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Q.: Do I have to answer all the questions on the form? A lot of that information is already on my resume.

A.: Yes. The resume is part of the application process. The security questionnaire is part of the investigation process. All of the questions should be answered fully, accurately and honestly.

Q.: What will happen if I refuse to give you some of this personal information?

A.: The investigation is a job requirement. Providing the information is voluntary, but if you choose not to provide the required information, you will not meet the requirements of the job and will therefore not be considered further. If you are already employed by the federal government, your appointment will be terminated. The courts have upheld this principle.

Q.: What should I do if I remember something later, after I've filled out the form and turned it in?

A.: Immediately notify the security officials to whom you submitted the questionnaire.

Q.: I'm not a criminal; why do you want my fingerprints?

A.: So that we can verify your claim that you're not a criminal by checking the FBI's fingerprint files. And executive orders require that all federal employees be fingerprinted.

Q.: My brother works for one of the largest companies in the world, but he didn't have to go through all this; why should I?

A.: The rules, regulations, laws and orders governing the hiring and retention of federal employees are specific. There is no requirement for private employers to use the same guidelines as public employers. Of course, if your brother's job with the private employer required him to have access to classified national security information as a contractor to the federal government, even your brother would have to be investigated.

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Q.: Will I get a chance to explain some of the answers I give you?

A.: Yes. Many types of background investigation involve a personal interview. Moreover, you may submit information on extra pages with your questionnaire if you feel you need to more fully explain details or circumstances of the answers you put on the form.

Q.: Who gets to see the report you prepare about me? Do I?

A.: The only persons authorized to see this information are personnel security, suitability and investigations professionals who have been investigated and have a demonstrated need to review the information. You may request a copy of your investigation file under provisions of the Privacy Act. For an OPM investigation request, write to OPM-IS, FOIP, Post Office Box 618, Boyers, PA 16018-0618. You must include your full name, Social Security number, date and place of birth, and you must sign your request.

Q.: I'm physically handicapped; will that hurt my chances for a job?

A.: No. It is against federal law to discriminate based on a handicapping condition.

Q.: Who decides if I get the job or a security clearance?

A.: Adjudications officials at the agency requiring the investigation will evaluate your case and communicate their recommendation to the appropriate personnel or security office.

Q.: Are you going to tell my boss that I'm looking for a job?

A.: It is a requirement of a background investigation that your current employer be contacted. We must verify your employment data and make other inquiries concerning your background. If you are a federal employee or contractor, it may be that your current employer needs you to have a security clearance for the work you do. In other instances, generally you are asked to complete the investigative form for an investigation and clearance only after a conditional offer of employment has been made for a position requiring a security clearance.

Q.: Doesn't the FBI conduct all federal background investigations?

A.: Actually, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Defense and a few other agencies share this responsibility. The FBI mostly conducts investigations of high-level presidential appointees (cabinet officers and agency heads) and staff who may work at the White House, directly for the president.

Q.: A lot of contractors say that you need a security clearance to apply for their jobs. How can I get a clearance in advance so I can apply for these jobs? Can I pay for it myself?

A.: The Office of Personnel Management has no procedure for an individual to independently apply for an investigation or security clearance. Clearances are based on investigations requested by federal agencies, appropriate to specific positions and their duties. Until a person is offered such a position, the government will not request or pay for an investigation for a clearance. Once a person has been offered a job (contingent upon satisfactory completion of an investigation), the government will require the person to complete a Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions, initiate the investigation, adjudicate the results and issue the appropriate clearance.

We know that some Defense Department contractors require applicants to already have a clearance, and they have the right to administer their personnel hiring procedures the way they want, as long as they don't discriminate based on prohibited factors (such as race or religion). Persons who already have clearances are those who are already employed by a government contractor (or by the government itself) and are looking for other job opportunities.

Q.: How long does a background investigation take?

A.: Because of the number of variable factors involved, there is no definitive answer to this question.

The kind of investigation to be conducted (which, for example, can be based on the level of a security clearance needed) will depend on the reason for the investigation. Different kinds of background investigations have different requirements for the scope of the investigative coverage to be obtained.

Some persons have more complex backgrounds than other persons, and consequently, more time is required to conduct a complete investigation.

Sometimes, the investigative workload of the investigating agency is such that investigators cannot work at their ordinary levels of efficiency and timeliness.

For additional information about your OPM investigation, go to www.opm.gov/investigations.

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