How to Prevent an Office Dispute From Sabotaging Your Security Clearance

It’s relatively easy for a supervisor or coworker to call your conduct into question, turning a personal vendetta into a career killer.

Do you have annoying coworkers? A terrible boss? While you may be concerned your complicated workplace will one day make you fly off the handle and lose your job, if you have access to sensitive information (and most government workers do), then you should be concerned about more than a possible angry outburst. You should be concerned about your security clearance.

“Under the Federal Adjudicative Guidelines, workplace disputes typically fall under the personal conduct category known as Guideline “E,” notes Sean Bigley, a security clearance attorney at Bigley-Ranish LLC. “It’s a catch-all charge for any situation in which a clearance holder’s judgment, reliability, or similar traits are called into question. Because Guideline E is so broadly worded, it is also ripe for use in retaliation or other petty office spats. Unfortunately, this is a particularly common occurrence in the military, where commanders are granted unilateral discretion to suspend a subordinate’s clearance.”

What does that mean? It means it’s often relatively easy for a supervisor or coworker to call your conduct into question, particularly if you get involved in a dispute. And a personal vendetta may turn into a career killer if an incident report is filed.

The concerns become even more serious in today’s post-Snowden era. Insider threat initiatives across the government are demanding government employees and contractors keep their eyes peeled and ears open.

Today’s insider threat initiatives require security professionals to verify the trustworthiness of their colleagues, notes Christopher Burgess, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee and the co-founder of Prevendra, LLC, an online security consultancy.

“They have been issued a hammer by the Defense Security Service (DSS),” observes Burgess. “They will be called upon to exercise great patience and understanding as they implement their Insider Threat Program. With this hammer in hand, one must take to heart Maslow’s 1962 admonishment within his book Toward a Psychology of Being—‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.’ ”

So, Does That Make Me the Nail?

If workplace conflicts are the norm in your office, or you have a complicated relationship with your supervisor, today’s environment demands you be more guarded—and documented. Here are other tips security clearance holders and government employees should consider:

  • Create a paper trail. This may seem paranoid, but it’s always a good idea to keep track of office incidents and conflicts—in writing. Make notes on your calendar, or send yourself a date-stamped email highlighting any concerns.
  • Think carefully before filing a formal dispute. Sometimes, going directly to Human Resources is the best solution. Many times, however, you’re better off solving things with the immediate parties, if at all possible. If you have a dispute with a coworker, attempt to solve the problem with just the two of you before you escalate it. If you decide you need to bring in outside help, make sure you’re clear on what your complaints are, and that they’re backed up by documented evidence.
  • Know when to go. Sometimes, a complicated workplace is a sign that it’s best to move on. But make sure you know what your status is with the company before you move on. Many security clearance holders have been burned by having an employer file a security clearance incident report as a parting gift when they’re on their way out the door. Keep things positive up until the point that you leave, and work with your security officer to ensure your security clearance hasn’t been compromised.

All workplaces involve some conflict. While all of us will at some point have an office or coworker situation that has us questioning our sanity, very rarely will it put your security clearance at risk. But when it comes to something as important as your career, it’s better to be prepared, than sorry.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com and a former Defense Department employee.

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