Its an unfortunate fact of life that we all can’t, in fact, just get along. In a world of sharp elbows and even sharper tongues, chances are good that someone in your life may just have an axe to grind. If they give your background investigator an earful, how damaging is that to your prospects of obtaining or retaining a security clearance?

This is a question we receive with frequency from worried clients. The worry is perhaps understandable: one bad reference in a job application could be devastating. Keep in mind, however, that a security clearance background investigation is not a job application per se.  Rather, it is an assessment of whether or not granting you access to classified information or sensitive duties poses a risk to national security.

These determinations are made only upon an assessment of all relevant facts and circumstances, and within the context of a “whole person” evaluation.  In other words, if everyone investigators interview say you are untrustworthy, have poor judgment, or otherwise exhibit unfavorable character traits, you’re going to have a problem. But if all but one of your references favorably recommend you, a single outlier will typically be viewed with a grain of salt.

This is particularly true if the naysayer is a former spouse or romantic partner who may have been jilted. (An irony given that a clearance holder can’t pay spousal or child support if s/he isn’t drawing a paycheck). If I had a dollar for every time I saw an angry ex describe their former spouse or significant other to background investigators as the devil incarnate, I’d be a very wealthy man.

This is also the case with a variety of other similar and common circumstances: a neighbor who dislikes the clearance applicant’s loud music; a former colleague jealous of the clearance applicant’s promotion; or even a roommate still seething over a rent dispute. Ultimately, anyone spewing vitriol about you that isn’t backed up by other references or factual evidence will usually be dismissed as not credible.

How to Prevent a Bad Reference

Nonetheless, many clearance applicants still wonder whether there is anything that can be done to proactively mitigate a bad reference. The strongest legal option – if you’re really thinking ahead – is to include a non-disparagement clause in any sort of civil settlement (e.g. to resolve an unpaid loan, back-rent, or employment termination) that might otherwise result in lingering bad blood. These clauses are even included in some divorce settlements.

Alternatively, a worried applicant may consider advising background investigators in advance of the circumstances and context surrounding a certain relationship – but that can create the risk of drawing unwanted attention to the situation.

Regardless of anything you may choose to do proactively in such a situation, there is one thing you definitely should not do: threaten, bribe, or otherwise coax the would-be naysayer into silence. Nothing creates the perception of truth quite like taking desperate measures to prevent investigators from hearing it.


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