Like any other application, those applying for security clearance need references—people who can vouch for not just your work ethic, but also your trustworthiness and your likelihood of trying to overthrow the government. They’re not to be chosen willy-nilly: A background investigator will contact your references—and more than one bad review can sadly tank your chances at getting clearance. “Derogatory information from an unwitting reference can sink a federal career as a service member, contractor, or employee,” says Daniel P. Meyer, managing partner at Tully Rinckey. “Once that information is on JPAS and Scattered Castles, it will travel from agency to agency, making you less competitive in Federal hiring or contracting.”
But that’s not the only reason choosing the right people are references is important: As Lauren Bean Buitta, founder of Girl Security, explains, offering up the best references—who can articulate well, and with integrity, what they know about you—shows that you will take the job seriously. “If your references are questionable, it does not send the right message about your judgment,” she says. “Judgment is a critical trait required for handling classified information.”
Who are the people that will help, rather than hurt, your chances of getting security clearance? They’re not family members, warns Meyer. “Family members are connected by bonds that can cloud their judgement in speaking with security,” he says. What’s more, “family members are also listed independently in most forms,” he says, and so your references should be different.
Instead, generally, “choose people you know very well and whose judgment you trust,” Buitta says. “The best references are individuals who have knowledge of you over a long period of time, if possible, and who know your work ethic through direct observation.” Strong references can also describe the best of your personality traits—such as reliability, honesty, and dedication. “It’s helpful if at least one of your references knows you in a personal setting as well to reassure your prospective employer that you also exhibit these preferred traits in social settings,” she says.
Here are five people that make the cut when it comes to references:
1. current or former employers.
These employers, Buitta says, “should be able to speak to basic work ethics, like punctuality, preparation, commitment, honesty, thoroughness.” And you’ll choose more than one prior employer because it’s “important to show that you apply yourself this way in more than one current or previous job, if possible,” Buitta explains. Employment verification is one of the more critical aspects of the security clearance process, and you’ll need to list someone who can verify your employment for each place you’ve worked.
2. Someone who knows you from civic or community engagement.
Whether that’s a peer who has traveled with you on service work or a supervisor from your longstanding volunteer work, he or she should know you well—not just met you once, says Meyer. “It’s harder to manufacture yourself to someone who knows you over time and in experiences that test your values,” he says.
3. A current or former professor, teacher, or instructor.
According to Buitta, someone who’s taught you can “speak to your commitment to learning and your approach in a setting where you are being challenged,” two things you may have to show you do well in order to get clearance.
4. A personal friend you’ve known for many years
Preferably since your teen years. “If you have maintained a relationship over decades, and that person will still speak favorably of you, that tells security you are capable of building and maintaining trust,” Meyer says. “If you can do that with a reference, you can do that with your employers requiring a security clearance.”
Whomever your references may be, they all must have one thing in common, Buitta says: The best references are able to speak genuinely and sincerely about you. “If they sound artificial or superficial, they will not benefit your application,” she warns. In other words, even if your choices look good on paper, they won’t make great references if they don’t sound good, too.