Question 13C of the SF-86 security clearance application asks a seemingly straightforward question:

In the last seven (7) years, have any of the following happened to you:

  • Fired from a job?
  • Quit a job after being told you would be fired?
  • Left a job by mutual agreement following charges or allegations of misconduct?
  • Left a job by mutual agreement following notice of unsatisfactory performance?
  • Received a written warning, been officially reprimanded, suspended, or disciplined for misconduct in the workplace, such as violation of a security policy?

For most people, determining whether they have been fired (or quit after being told they would be fired) doesn’t require much mental energy. However, there are plenty of situations where the actual circumstances of one’s departure or prior workplace discipline are less clear. Examples that come to mind include: “confidential settlements”, which I’ve written about previously (HINT: they aren’t confidential when it comes to security clearance applications); reprimands that are supposed to be removed from the employee’s file after a specified period; and, written warnings that includes corporate legalese claiming NOT to be a “warning”, but rather merely “informal counseling”.

As I always explain to my clients, the biggest potential risk to the security clearance applicant in this area is generally NOT the past employment issues themselves, but rather the appearance of an intentional lack of candor caused by trying to “hedge” on what constitutes reportable adverse information. After all, most employment-related problems are relatively minor in nature. They become security clearance issues only when they represent an apparent pattern of unemployability, evidence of moral turpitude (e.g. embezzlement, time card fraud), or serious negligence in the discharge of one’s security responsibilities. I’ve never seen a personality conflict or the inevitable “horrible boss” serve as cause for a security clearance denial.

I can’t cover every conceivable employment-related problem here, even if I had the time and space to do so. But I can confidently state this: when in doubt, list the incident on the SF-86 or get an attorney opinion letter to cover yourself with the defense of “advice of counsel.” Even better, call your past employer’s Human Resources office and ask them how they characterize whatever happened to you. They may decline to do so for fear of a lawsuit, but it is worth the attempt considering that you can guarantee federal background investigators will be making the same efforts.


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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Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials, revocations, and the security clearance application process. He is a former investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management). For more information, please visit Readers will also find a low-cost, self-help option for obtaining copies of their security clearance background investigations and DISS/Scattered Castles records at