Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

How to prepare for clearance investigations

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My Nov. 28 column reviewed the basics of security clearances. Here are tips on how to pass investigations required for obtaining security clearances; they were suggested to me during a recent interview with Derrick Dortch, president of the Diversa Group, a career consulting firm focused on federal jobs.

* Prepare for the investigations. Obtain Standard Form 86, which you would be required to complete during your investigation. The form is available under “Find forms” on the Office of Personnel Management website, www.opm.gov. Also, do a Google search typing in the name of your target agency with the term “security clearance” to learn about the agency’s particular clearance policies.

* Obtain your credit reports from all companies that produce them, and immediately correct any mistakes and genuine credit problems cited by them. Also, obtain all documents related to any court history you may have or any brushes with the police you may have had. (But don’t worry about parking tickets.)

* If you have been treated by psychologists or psychiatrists, warn them that they will probably be interviewed by your investigators, and ask them what they would say about you.

* Scrub your online profiles of unflattering, inflammatory or potentially controversial behavior by you.

* Once your security investigation begins, tell the truth throughout the process; lying about your potential liabilities may hurt you more than your actual liabilities.

* Document every phase of your security investigation. For example, write down the names, titles, contact information and any other relevant information about all investigators or polygraph examiners who interact with you, and what you discussed with them. Also, take notes during your interviews with investigators.

Immediately after your interviews or polygraphs are completed, while these interactions are still fresh in your mind, note any biases or prejudices that may have been shown by your interviewers or polygraphists, and any questions or statements that were inappropriate or made you feel uncomfortable. You may need this information if you are ultimately denied a security clearance and opt to appeal it.

* Some agencies, including those in the intelligence, national and homeland security communities, include polygraph tests in their security clearance processes. Polygraph tests monitor changes in the heart rate and other physiological reactions of the test-taker while he is being questioned by an examiner.

But polygraphs remain controversial, partly because a person’s nervousness in answering questions may cause a polygraph to flag truthful answers as deceptive — i.e. answers that are false negatives. That is largely why polygraph results are not admissible in court.

* If you are required to take a polygraph, discuss any issues about your background that make you feel uncomfortable before the polygraph examiner puts you on the polygraph. In response, the examiner may allow you to elaborate or explain your answers during the test so that you may clarify any potentially thorny issues and reduce the chances of your answers registering as false.

Also keep in mind that some — but not all — agencies may allow applicants who provide potentially problematic answers to retake polygraphs two or even three times.

Nevertheless, if you fail a polygraph, your target agency may rescind your Conditional Offer of Employment (COE). If this occurs even if you have been truthful, immediately appeal and request to take another polygraph.

* The emphases of polygraphs vary among agencies. For example, some agency’s polygraphs emphasize lifestyle questions, involving potential drug and alcohol abuse, criminal records and problems with personal finances. By contrast, the polygraphs of intelligence agencies may emphasize factors signaling a potential willingness to spy on the U.S., such as an extensive travel history, experience living overseas and the character of the applicant’s overseas relatives and friends — although international experience and foreign language skills are generally considered pluses.

 

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