There’s a good chance you’ve left at least one previous job because you didn’t love your boss. (In fact, a recent poll of nearly 1,000 job seekers showed that a solid 76% of respondents thought their current boss was “toxic.”) And there’s also a fair chance that bad relationship left some kind of lasting impression—whether you received a written warning or worse, were fired.

If you’re now applying for security clearance, you could be wondering: How could a bad boss—or a bad ending to your employment history—affect your application process and approval?

As you likely know, the Standard Form (SF) 86 asks several questions about your employment history. It requires you to list of your last 10 years of work, and asks whether you were fired—or quit after you were told you’d be fired—or have received written warnings or been reprimanded.

“So, if you were fired from a job, or if you left the job under some sort a cloud, you’re going to wind up disclosing that on the SF 86,” says Charles McCullough III, a partner at Compass Rose Legal Group and former Inspector General of the intelligence community. And don’t think you should exclude that information either. “People twist themselves into knots trying to rationalize why they shouldn’t put it on the SF 86,” he says. “But it’s going to come up in the interview if you don’t disclose it. And if it comes up in the interview and you didn’t disclose it on the SF 86, now they have an integrity issue,” he explains, which could prevent you from getting clearance.

Luckily, leaving a job under a cloud, or being asked to leave, doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. “It will get scrutiny,” McCullough says. “There’s absolutely no doubt about that.” As part of the application, your job files may be reviewed—or that bad boss may be interviewed, McCullough says. “However, these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum,” McCullough says. “The people who are clearing people realize that they’re recruiting people from the human race. People have flaws and people have a history and lives and everything else. You’re always better off being honest.”

McCullough recommends that you take advantage of the additional space on the eQIP form to explain—in a concise way— why you left (or were asked to leave) the job. “I would say, ‘I had a very poor relationship with my supervisor. The supervisor has since been fired herself,’ or whatever the situation is,” McCullough says. “But you’re going to want to provide some context to the people who receive that form, and some context to the people who are interviewing you.”

You come to your interview prepared with a “coherent explanation,” McCullough says. Again, that fact that your left on bad terms or were fired isn’t the deal breaker—it’s the why that will really matter, he says. “If the ‘fill in the blank’ portion of that has to do with a security issue, it has to do with lying, it has to do with using drugs at work, it has to do with stealing—obviously that’s a whole different issue,” McCullough says. “But for somebody who just was working and didn’t get along with the supervisor and left or was asked to leave and it wasn’t on good terms, it’s a case-by-case assessment and it’s not necessarily the show-stopper that people think it is.”

As for that bad boss being interviewed, you’ll likely have a chance to respond to anything he or she has to say about you, McCullough says. “They’re probably going to come back to you and say, ‘We talked to some people at your old job and we’re hearing this, this, this, and this. Is that true?’” he says. “And you’re going to have an opportunity to give them your version of events.”

Honesty will always be the best policy, McCullough says. “And if there’s a reason to believe that somebody is going to be unfair with you at a job that you left, then you’re better off just saying, ‘I worked for a guy, he and I had an awful personality conflict. He liked the Patriots and I liked whomever, and we just didn’t get along from day one,’” he says. “So, when you talk to him, I don’t know what he’ll say. He was my supervisor there. But I just wanted to let you know that.”

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Jillian Kramer is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and many more.
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