Entering periods of unemployment in the SF-86’s Employment History section causes trepidation for a surprising number of security clearance applicants. The issue seems most often to be rooted in a fear of the unknown. Background investigators review human resources files and speak with former supervisors and colleagues for past employment; that’s a given (at least for Top Secret clearances). But how do they verify periods of unemployment, and what are they looking for?

Activities and Finances During Unemployment Under the Microscope

At the most basic level, investigators are looking to corroborate an applicant’s primary activity during the period(s) of unemployment and how he or she supported themself financially. For most applicants, the primary activity was looking for employment and the means of financial support either personal savings, unemployment compensation, help from a spouse or relative, or a combination of the above.

Assuming this sums up your situation, rarely does investigative inquiry extend beyond speaking with verifying sources and cross-referencing any claim of unemployment compensation with the relevant state agency’s records. (Investigators typically don’t interview relatives of an applicant for the obvious reason of bias; but unemployment is one of a few situations where an exception of necessity may arise).

This means that listing a period or periods of unemployment is usually no big deal – something that wouldn’t even result in a blip on security officials’ radar – and certainly not the type of thing that would normally result in an assessment of security risk.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. These exceptions are, in fact, the reasons why the background investigation covers periods of unemployment, and when they arise, they can be doozies.

  • Consider, for example, the applicant who was selling illegal drugs for income during a period of unemployment. Security issue? Absolutely.
  • What about the applicant who lacked any discernible source of income during a lengthy period of unemployment but was simultaneously flush with cash? Investigators will certainly have questions, especially if the individual had access to classified information or trade secrets before becoming unemployed.
  • Finally, consider the applicant who seemed intent on traveling while he or she should ostensibly have been focused on obtaining a new job. Might trips abroad for “tourism” while unemployed raise red flags, even if not to obviously problematic destinations like Russia or China? Certainly.

Don’t Forget About the Details of the Side Hustle

All of these are extreme examples, but they are illustrative of the type of serious security issues that can arise in the context of a seemingly benign situation like unemployment. What is less obviously a problem, and what we see with more frequency in my practice, are situations like this: gig economy income while unemployed that was not reported to tax authorities; fudged start and end dates of employment designed to obscure a job termination; and financial support from a foreign national while unemployed. Standing alone, issues like these aren’t necessarily deal-breakers from a security perspective. But taken in conjunction with acts of deception, they paint an unflattering picture that can result in legitimate security concerns.

SF-86 Should be an Honest Report

What I always tell applicants is that the SF-86 isn’t a resume or a job application: honestly reporting past unemployment isn’t going to put one at a competitive disadvantage or result in a lost opportunity. It’s the activities and means of financial support while unemployed – and the reason for the unemployment – that are the potential issues. And that’s precisely why you’ll be asked about them.


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 https://www.berrylegal.com/.