References can be one of the most complex parts of filling out the SF-86. There’s friends, and then there’s ‘people I’d be willing to vouch for my reliability to work in national security friends.’ A recent commenter on our YouTube page highlighted this problem saying – ‘I don’t really have friends – who in the heck do I list on the form?’

On the other end, another recent question came in asking what can be done if you list someone on your SF-86 as a reference but then have…regrets. Specifically, this individual was concerned that one of their references was suddenly espousing crazy beliefs online and appeared to be mentally unstable – would having someone like that listed as a reference negatively affect the applicant?

Security clearance background investigators aren’t there to judge your life choices, friends, or that stint you spent working as a cocktail waitress at a local casino. The investigation process is concerned with reliability and trustworthiness – not who you know. That doesn’t mean that your references don’t matter – you should expect them to be contacted if you’re going in for a Top Secret clearance investigation, or if they’re needed to verify information for your Secret investigation. But the questions will focus on you, not them. If you’re really concerned about a reference, it’s okay to let your security officer know, or let a background investigator know when or if you’re contacted for a personal subject interview.

The only way a mentally unstable reference could be a clearance issue is if you continue to stay closely connected – and are somehow connected to their unstable behavior (so, they espouse anti-government views online, and you pile on with your opinions, as well). If your references jump the shark, don’t sweat it – as long as you don’t join them in the tank, you should be fine.

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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer