Charting a course into federal government is not always apparent to those without a guide.

Charting a course into federal government is not always apparent to those without a guide. bagira22/Getty Images

How diverse candidates can better navigate the security clearance process

COMMENTARY | Simple steps can make the security clearance process less of a barrier to keeping diverse candidates out of government careers.

If you work in national security – and let’s face it, much of government – navigating the security clearance process is a key part of the career journey. At ClearanceJobs, we frequently come across brand-new security clearance applicants who are 18, joining the military, and need a Secret clearance for their military mission. We also frequently come across 50-year-old careerists who have served in and around the government for decades, but now need to transition into a position of public trust or cleared position in order to advance. 

The government has taken many steps over the past several years to acknowledge that for diverse applicants, in particular – those from diverse racial, ethnic, or gender backgrounds, along with neurodiverse individuals – the security clearance process presents unique challenges. Unfortunately, many of those challenges come down to a simple lack of understanding, awareness, and advocacy. The security clearance process is meant to create a baseline for establishing reliability and trustworthiness to access classified information. It’s not about making sure applicants are perfect.

The Defense Department is transparent in its appeals process, releasing causes of clearance denial and revocation by adjudicative guideline. What isn’t made clear is who has self-selected out of the process completely, either by assuming their background isn’t a good fit for a national security career, or seeing the effort of obtaining clearance eligibility as too great.

It’s clear that providing more information to applicants is critical to helping onboard more diverse talent into national security careers. And fortunately, there are simple steps both companies and the government can take to better educate and inform and ensure a security clearance doesn’t become an unnecessary roadblock for diverse applicants. 

For diverse (and all) applicants, here are a few points to consider.

Read the Adjudicative Guidelines

Becoming an ‘expert’ on the security clearance process is sort of a laughable vocation for me because that expertise has come through ignorance. When I obtained my first security clearance I had no clue what it actually was – I just thought it was a part of the ultra-cumbersome process of becoming a government employee (don’t even get me started on USAJobs…). To think about reading the adjudicative guidelines as a GS-7, new to government applicant? You’ve got to be kidding me!

Today, that’s generally the first thing I advise clearance applicants to do. Knowledge is power – and especially for diverse applicants. Knowing what the security clearance process is truly looking for will give you greater confidence in understanding what it doesn’t need to know about. Oversharing can be a fatal flaw for many applicants – but it could spell even greater issues for diverse applicants because of cultural bias or stigma. The adjudicative guidelines give a guide for what is considered mitigating information. Being able to mitigate possible issues is especially important for applicants who may have debt, foreign-born relatives, or other issues. Diverse applicants should be up front about issues ‘I was living in an area where predatory loans were common, and because of that was taken advantage of in my 20s and have worked hard to regain my financial footing’ should be considered a mitigating factor. But if all the government sees is significant debt without an explanation in the ‘additional comments’ section, an applicant is more likely to have their clearance denied.

Reading the adjudicative guidelines is powerful because not only does it tell you what factors go into a determination, but also the steps that one can take to mitigate them. The hidden cost to the diversity of the candidate pool from candidates who consider themselves "unclearable" is significant. Reading through the adjudicative guidelines makes it clearer how issues related to bias or background can be mitigated by an explanation of the extenuating factors and family realities.

Get Help with the SF-86

The security clearance process is about helping ensure individuals can access the government’s secrets. It's not meant to be a secret itself. Unfortunately, it feels that way for many applicants. Filling out the standard form for clearance eligibility (SF-86) is typically a solo mission, one that candidates are asked to do before they ever come into the office and meet with their security officers in person. Even if they are at work, they are typically left to their own devices when it comes to filling out the form. 

If you have a question about the SF-86, ask. Employers should consider how Employee Resource Groups for diverse applicants can come alongside them to help answer common questions. Hispanic workers are significantly under-represented in government careers compared to the overall population, and also typically face more concern about listing foreign-born relatives or non-naturalized relatives who may live in the U.S. on their clearance applications. Having others who have favorably made their way through the process and can answer questions is so important to help candidates understand that listing a relative is not going to result in an immigration inquiry.

The same issues apply to neurodiverse applicants, who are known to struggle with responding to questions on the form that may come with caveats. An applicant who has been through the process can help see the form through their eyes and navigate those questions. (You probably don’t need to list your high school shoplifting incident where you were never arrested, for instance. You especially don’t need to read that question, assume you’re a criminal, and then bail on the process).

Have Someone with You in the Interview

I have been through several security clearance interviews, most often as a reference for other candidates. Only one of those times has my investigator been a woman. Background investigators remain a male dominated industry (within the male dominated industry of national security). One common misconception for applicants is that they have to go through a personnel subject interview alone. My understanding of the policy is this is not the case. Applicants should feel free to request a coworker, friend, or another party be in the room while the interview is conducted. 

Because the security clearance background investigation process is covered by the Privacy Act, you should know you do have the right to keep the details you disclose private – you may not want to have your security officer or HR rep in the room. You likely also won’t want to ask an attorney to be in the room with you – it might look a bit shady. But if having a support person in the room can assist you in answering questions about sensitive issues, you should not hesitate to ask your background investigator for that accommodation. If they say no – ask them to produce the policy that says you can’t. It’s common for security clearance background interviews to be conducted in public places – so simply sitting your support person at the table next to you may be all you need to remind you that you are more than the negative experiences of your past – and the background investigation process understands that. 

In addition, if you have a specific issue that you would feel more comfortable addressing with an investigator of a different gender, you can make a request for a different investigator. Unfortunately, in my experience, this will likely delay the process. But it’s important for applicants to take care of themselves in the process – if you feel strongly that you would prefer a different investigator, make the ask.  

All of these are simple steps that can be taken today with no policy changes. The path to more diversity in national security careers is slow. In addition to onboarding, the ability to retain diverse talent and move them into management positions and higher clearance levels is a barrier to a more representative workforce. The Office of Management and Budget’s Performance Accountability Council Program Management Office has taken several steps to address diversity in the clearance process, working with RAND to commission studies on both diversity and candidate experience – topics that go together when it comes to Trusted Workforce 2.0 reforms and rolling the trusted worker concept out across government. 

Equal doesn’t mean identical. And this is one area where the security clearance process is at an advantage. While all men and women are created equal, they don’t have the same experiences. The security clearance process applies the ‘whole person’ concept to ensure an applicant’s eligibility to access classified information is based on the totality of a person’s character. The "whole person" the government needs includes those from diverse backgrounds and with a variety of experiences. 

Diverse applicants shouldn’t be expected to navigate the path to a government career alone. Helping them navigate the security clearance process is a part of that. Because so much of the clearance process resembles pirate’s code (more guidelines than rules), having resources to translate the pirate’s code is important. Charting a course into federal government is not always apparent to those without a guide. Those already in government should step up to help navigate, and companies should establish resources to help, as well. The security clearance is often the path to a better national security career. But it doesn’t need to be a barrier.