While there are many recruiting blogs out there, in a period of information overload, it can be difficult to sift through every “how-to” job seeking article. Instead of tips and tricks, let’s look at  what NOT to do in the career search from the perspective of a defense recruiter, along with a few tips on how to put out the potential fires.

What seriously irritates this important part of the national security workforce?

Speaking from experience, recruiters are a very burned out population in this industry due to the amount of funded awarded contracts to staff along with working proposals up for bid by their employer. Add to all of that the staffing for any turnover.

On the other hand, job seeking can be a very difficult, overwhelming task, and it might be easy to forget the do’s and do not’s when interacting with talent acquisition teams in the government contracting space.

The rules of engagement can look different from one recruiter to the next, but here are some pet peeves of mine to think about avoiding. The goal is to reduce the risk irritating another recruiter, while making the job seeking process as seamless as possible.

Jack of all trades, but not all positions

Alright we get it, you’re an awesome employee and can either be a software developer or an aircraft mechanic. Probably not. Maybe you’ve been unemployed for some time and are becoming desperate to find your next gig. Maybe you’re afraid your current contract is coming to an end, and you’re starting to panic.

All this said, please don’t apply for anything or everything on a company’s website. Whether it’s a staffing team of two or twenty, they all talk and will likely put a note in your profile in their Applicant Tracking System that you’ve thrown out applications to jobs you’re not qualified for.

Be selective and dedicate your time to pursuing those opportunities properly – this mindfulness will show to the recruiter if you apply to a position you clearly match the description for. So rather than sending in dozens of generic resumes for unsuitable roles, which can come across as lazy and casting a wide net, be sure to do your homework on the company, program and position.

The ‘what can you do for me’ message

This is probably one of the biggest pet peeves I’ve heard from other recruiters. A candidate reaches out to you for the first time and says, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a career in IT within the DoD. Take a look at my resume and let me know what you think.’ While I refuse to ignore people to a fault, I usually told these people they really need to change their approach. Again, do your homework and research the company, their mission and current job openings. A good initial message would be ‘Hi there, I see your company has an All source analyst opening in DC. I have an active TS/SCI and will be retiring from the Army in 2 months having a few deployments but almost 12 years total experience as an all-source analyst (among other roles while on active duty). I’d love the chance to speak with you about it directly, but also formally applied through your website.’

You’re matching yourself to the requirements and stating your objective at the forefront. This is a thoughtful approach and saves the recruiter time and mental headaches that cause a lot of people to ignore the person.

Turning a blind eye or arguing about clearances

Be honest with the recruiter about your timelines for your last investigation date. The recruiter will always verify your clearance with their Facility Security Officer (FSO) in the respective personnel security system. So playing dumb in this situation (whether you know your security clearance is inactive or if you have an incident report in your personnel file) will not serve you well. Just say it’s inactive, expired, current, or you last worked a cleared position at this time if you truly don’t know.

If you’re applying for a TS/SCI billet and you know that you only have secret access, be upfront in asking if the contract or customer will allow the timeline to upgrade or not. If you are transparent with a recruiter, perhaps they know of another company willing to wait for the upgrade, or maybe they have a secret level position coming up in the next few months that they can add you to in the pipeline.

Now if you are surprised to hear that your security clearance is inactive or will not work for that contract, DO NOT ARGUE with the recruiter. First, like with many things in the defense hiring process, recruiters are merely a messenger. Second, their FSO will know the requirements for the position you are applying for. Third, there is a better way to move forward in this discussion. Give your thanks for the opportunity to be considered and see if the recruiter is willing to pass your contact info to the FSO to have a phone call about your next steps. Leave your expectations at the door, but I have done this too many times to count for the polite candidates.

Money talks, but doesn’t tell jokes

Just make it a golden rule that the recruiter is not joking about any of the contract or position requirements you discuss. The salary discussion can be uncomfortable for greener applicants in the civilian defense world, but most veteran recruiters don’t like to beat around the bush. Most of the time it is a difficult position to fill with a small candidate pool and even stricter time constraints. And like with security clearance statuses in government contracting, recruiters are the messenger. Rarely are they asked to do market research on salaries when a company is bidding on work, and rarely do they have the wiggle room. I’ve been laughed at quite a few times – even with saying I’m just being upfront on the salary, I realize your experience may be overqualified for this range, or I’m not trying to insult your background/experience.

I’ve also had candidates who are extremely polite and courteous, saying things like “I understand you have a rate you’re working with, but unfortunately that isn’t the target I was looking at to relocate.” Or simply “that would be a pay cut, but I may know of someone.”

Be humble. Burning bridges will eventually put you on an island alone.ca

Suddenly changing salary requirements

Defense recruiters ask candidates about salary requirements in the initial screening call/interview so candidates and positions are accurately matched as quickly as possible, and they know whether to move forward with you for that position, or place you in the pipeline for another which better suits what you are looking for. Ultimately, this is to prevent a large timeline in the position being vacant, creating a gap in fulfilling that customer’s mission.

Government contracts usually have a set salary in place for every billet, whether you are the prime or a subcontractor, and I personally would always confirm these details before submitting candidates to the government customer for approval. If salary requirements change after this approval, and the negotiation ends in the recruiter and candidate going their separate ways, the customer is always unhappy with the energy put into the process just for position to remain unfilled.

So unless you’re some kind of rockstar and the company has the funds to give you a sign-on bonus, suddenly asking for more money at the end of the process (and not communicating if things happen to change during approval) will probably irk the recruiting team’s nerves.

Just be honest, transparent, communicate, and above all, not greedy. Especially showing money was your biggest motivation at the last minute.

Getting very important details very, very wrong

Spotting your company’s name spelled incorrectly in an email or a cover letter sticks out like a sore thumb. Recruiters want to see that you know where you’re applying to and are detail oriented. Slow down, and double check your work.

If you’re communicating with a recruiter after applying to a position, or even replying to them if they seek you out, be sure you are stating their name or addressing them correctly. I’ve been called ‘hey mister’ or ‘Kelly’ too many times to count and it’s an immediate turn-off. I know Katie Keller can sometimes easily mesh into one word in the human brain, but when you’re typing out an email, there is absolutely no excuse. Especially if you’re replying to an email that a recruiter sent including a signature block with all the details! Re-read what you’ve typed and keep in mind who you’re communicating with.

If you notice after the fact that you’ve referred to something incorrectly, a follow-up note pointing out your silly mistake in the situation, and perhaps a joke to go along with can show you do check your work after the fact but also have a sense of humor. I certainly would appreciate the apology.


Now this one happens to both candidates and recruiters I’ve heard, but in today’s digital world I can’t seem to understand why. We have so many communication tools at our disposal and it’s just downright cruel.

I’ve had candidates ghost me at every step in the process, whether it’s after a great initial phone screen, after an interview with the Project Manager, after prime contractor approval, following the government’s approval, or even on their first day not showing up to their indoctrination appointment at the customer site. I’ve even candidates in my pipeline (who I’ve known and kept in touch with for years) who have ghosted me, popping up a year later, like, “Hey how’s it going?” I was sending you “Are you ok/alive??” texts, dude.

I get that life happens, people have families, extracurriculars, and my top staffing priority may not be the first thing on a candidate’s mind – especially if they were a sourced candidate that I reached out to first.

But to the candidates who simply don’t reply to communication at any step in the process because you are no longer interested: we do not bite, so try to communicate with your recruiter! They have spent a lot of time and energy into explaining the company benefits, position, team, answering any questions, etc. The further into the process you are in the recruiting lifecycle, the more likely you’ll be put onto that company’s do not hire list. Communication is key to a career in this space, especially if you find yourself aggressively looking in the future. JUST. BE. NICE. Recruiters are a beneficial networking group to have on your side.

To all the candidates seeking work in the national security world, I hope these pet peeves of mine help you to understand recruiters and make the engagement process the most positive it can be.

To all the recruiters in the cleared industry, best of luck in finding some time to work on patience in your busy schedules, all the while wrangling these secret squirrels.


Related News

Katie Keller is a marketing fanatic that enjoys anything digital, communications, promotions & events. She has 8+ years in the DoD supporting multiple contractors with recruitment strategy, staffing augmentation, marketing, & communications. Favorite type of beer: IPA. Fave hike: the Grouse Grind, Vancouver, BC. Fave social platform: ClearanceJobs! 🇺🇸