The defense of the American people and its way of life has a humble beginning: paperwork. In order for the federal government to properly evaluate job candidates for security clearances, they need a considerable amount of  information. That information comes from Standard Form 86 (SF-86). Rounding out at over 120 pages, the SF-86 is a behemoth. But it’s not because the federal government wants to give you carpal tunnel syndrome; this form is the essential first step in the security clearance process. Errors or incomplete information on the SF-86 will cause a delay in your clearance, so be sure to give this lengthy doc the attention it deserves.

One section that can often cause hiccups is Section 13A, the employment section. With so many dates, addresses, and names to remember, it’s easy to understand how this section could trip up even the most vigilant security clearance applicants. That’s why Marko Hakamaa, longtime security professional and moderator of the ClearanceJobs Blog, recently offered some tips on how to master Section 13A of the SF-86.

 Tips for Filling out Your Employment Activities on the SF-86

As stated, issues with the SF-86 can cause delays in obtaining your security clearance. As Hakamaa explains, “The more accurate and thorough you are, the easier it is for investigators and records custodians to verify the information and check the block. That in turn helps speed up the process of getting your background investigation closed.”

He offers up these tips, courtesy of the National Background Investigations Bureau:

  • List ALL jobs beginning with the present and back 10 full years with no breaks. No job is too short or insignificant to list.
  • Do NOT list tentative or future employment.
  • Do not stretch employment dates to fill gaps when you were really unemployed for a month or more.
  • In addition to the employer location, ensure you provide your physical work location.
  • Ensure you have current up-to-date contact information for supervisors.

Another background investigator also chimed in with suggestions for clearance applicants:

  • “If you work a summer job in the summer of 2015, Summer 2016, and Summer 2017, do not list that you worked at this job from May 2015 to August 2017. You worked at this job from May 2015 to August 2015, May 2016 to August 2016, and May 2017 to August 2017 WITH periods of UNEMPLOYMENT from August 2015 to May 2016 and August 2016 to May 2017. You can list these 3 periods of employment with the same employer as three separate employment items or utilize the ‘additional periods of employment’ option within the employment item.
  • If you are a 1099 employee with any company, you are SELF-EMPLOYED. When self-employed, list a verifier who actually has direct knowledge of your self-employment (i.e. customer, client, not your best friend whom you never did work for/with).
  • Do not check that you are a state employee if you are a city/local government employee.
  • Do not list someone you have never met as your supervisor (i.e. a random person in HR).
  • If you work for a temp agency, list the TEMP AGENCY as your employer. The company you are placed at is the Job Location.
  • If unemployed, list a person who you actually saw while unemployed who can account for your activities during this period of your life. Do not list the random man/lady at the unemployment office.”

As the investigator points out, correct information on the SF-86 is especially important for Tier 1-3 cases where you may not ever meet face-to-face with an investigator. For Tier 4 and 5 cases, you will be able to make clarifications to a background investigator – but don’t let that be an excuse for sloppy paperwork. “If your employments are in different areas, an investigator might already be assigned the work before you ever get a chance to sit down with an investigator. That other investigator is then spinning their wheels searching for people who do not exist. Utilize the comment section if you need to explain some oddity in the employment.”

Questions You Should Pay Special Attention To

Hakamaa also urges clearance candidates to pay special attention to the questions listed after each employment entry:

  • For this employment have any of the following happened to you in the last seven (7) years? Fired, quit after being told you would be fired, left by mutual agreement following charges or allegations of misconduct, left by mutual agreement following notice of unsatisfactory performance.
  • For this employment, in the last seven (7) years have you received a written warning, been officially reprimanded, suspended, or disciplined for misconduct in the workplace, such as a violation of security policy?”

Same rules apply here as when you took your SATs back in high school: follow the directions to the letter. Be honest. As Hakamaa points out, “Whether or not you agree, if the employer would say that you were fired, terminated, or left under unfavorable circumstances, list it and explain the circumstances. If you had ANY discipline, warnings, reprimands, list it (verbal, written, formal and informal, etc.) This will alleviate any appearance of lack of candor if something does pop up during the course of the background investigation and shows you have accepted responsibility and put it behind you.”

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Caroline D'Agati is an Editor for ClearanceJobs based in Washington, D.C. Her background is in public policy, non-profit fundraising, and - oddly enough - park rangering. Though she once dreamed of serving America secretly in the CIA, she's grateful she's gotten to serve America publicly - both through the National Park Service and right here at ClearanceJobs. If you have tips or are interested in contributing to our site, you can email her at caroline.d'agati@clearancejobs.com