This article is the first installment of a three-part series on ethics for federal employees and contractors.

If you’ve never heard of the Hatch Act, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the yawn-inducing publications typically circulated by crusty federal agency ethics officials.  I can’t say I blame you.

Unfortunately, running afoul of the Hatch Act can mean serious employment-related consequences – including the loss of a security clearance.  Here is what you need to know about the Hatch Act in order to (hopefully) keep yourself out of trouble:

What Exactly is the Hatch Act?

The Hatch Act, a federal law passed in 1939, limits certain political activities of federal employees (except members of the Armed Forces), as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation (U.S. Office of Special Counsel website).

Does the Hatch Act Apply to Contractors?

Possibly. Whether the Hatch Act applies to a contractor centers around whether the contractor is a personal service contractor – i.e. an individual with whom the government directly contracts to provide a service – or merely an employee of a company with whom the government has contracted.  Personal service contractors are covered by the Hatch Act, whereas employees of contractor companies generally are not.  However, even employees of contractor companies should be mindful of the Hatch Act’s provisions: federal agencies are entitled to remove an individual employee of a contractor from any federal contract if the employee’s actions render him or her unsuitable or disruptive to the agency’s efficiency.  You can bet that blatant Hatch Act violations will fall under that description.

What Constitutes a Violation of the Hatch Act?

The Hatch act prohibits a wide range of conduct that includes:

  • Campaigning for partisan elected office while serving as a federal employee or covered personal service contractor
  • Campaigning for a candidate for partisan political office using government time or resources
  • Making public statements in support of a political campaign using one’s official title
  • Soliciting campaign contributions or attendance at political events using government time or resources

These are broad examples only and not intended to be an inclusive list. For specifics,  you should visit this U.S. government website.

Who Investigates Violations of the Hatch Act?

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent executive branch agency, is responsible for investigating Hatch Act violations.  In some situations, an agency’s Office of Inspector General may also investigate.

What are the Consequences for Violating the Hatch Act?

The consequences are severe and can range from a letter of reprimand all the way up to termination.

So why is this a Security Clearance Issue?

Ultimately, security clearance determinations are predictive determinations about a person’s reliability, integrity, and judgment.  A Hatch Act violation, especially one that is done knowingly, can give security officials pause as to whether the violator may exhibit the same disregard for the rules surrounding protection of classified information.  It is entirely possible that a pernicious violation of the Hatch Act could result in the loss of a security clearance.  In the case of minor violations, however, (e.g. displaying a political screensaver on your computer desktop) such a drastic result is highly unlikely.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at