Reference interviews are a crucial part of the security clearance process, especially for Top Secret security clearance investigations. During a reference interview, investigators will reach out to individuals who can provide insights into the candidate’s character, trustworthiness, and reliability. These references could be former employers, colleagues, friends, or neighbors who have known the candidate for a significant period of time.

Are Phone Interviews Back for the Background Investigation Process?

At the height of the security clearance backlog (or during stay at home orders during a global pandemic), a measure was introduced to allow the use of VTC or telephonic interviews for certain Enhanced Subject Interviews (ESIs) or Special Interviews (SPINs) required during security clearance applications. This had DCSA, its contractors, and clearance applicants awaiting their final adjudication in hopes that these remote tactics would reduce the backlog of pending investigations.

And while it did, we’re seeing an uptick in numbers, and chatter amongst background investigators on the ClearanceJobsBlog says that the game of actual telephone may be back.

There is difference in opinion between the old and new age of background investigation styles. In-person allows you to potentially uncover more red flags, but others say virtual interviewing is convenient and saves time. VTC interviews can be challenging for populations that aren’t tech savvy, but are you overworking the case and contributing to the backlog if you spend hours with one subject?

We’ve covered the topic previously, and we will continue to see this debate for years to come as technology advances, new generations enter the security personnel workforce, and clearance best practices shift.

The purpose of subject interviews is to verify the information provided by the candidate on their security clearance application and to uncover any red flags that may indicate potential security risks. Interviewers may ask about the candidate’s personal and professional conduct, financial situation, foreign contacts, drug and alcohol use, and any other behaviors that could be relevant to their suitability for a security clearance – can this be done over the phone just as sufficient as speaking with a reference in person?

Background investigators certainly have opinions:

“Anecdotal but was recently interviewed as a reference for another persons investigation. Was offered in-person or over the phone. Figured the phone would save us both a commute. Felt so superficial and impersonal that they might as well just send email questionnaires instead. I’d personally and professionally feel more comfortable and secure if people being interviewed were having face to face contact either over zoom or in-person.”

“I find it hilarious how much back and forth the policy makers have with phone interviews, a few months ago the source practically had to be dying in the hospital to do it over the phone….don’t get me wrong though, it makes the job much easier.”

“In theory in person interviews make the most sense, these are issues of National security. In reality you drive 45 minutes to meet someone at a Starbucks who barely knows the subject, didnt really supervise them or live next door to them like they said, and it’s a giant waste of time and resources. Subject interviews should be in person but most sources should be via telephone unless issues are expected.”

“45 minute drive? In my western metro area, that is a daily one way trip, several times. Last Monday, I drove over six hours round trip to interview a former supervisor for a remote working Subject because of the silliness of no telephone interviews. While six hours is not daily, in my area, it is not unusual since we cover areas in three states and two time zones. Thursday was a 4.5 hour round trip with no other items in that area. We’re down a couple agents in my humble org. The real humdinger is that other areas think we need the work or send extensions “with their SAC’s permission”. My area has not been low on work in over 21 years, even during covid. The phone/VTC interviews were a great tool for the remote simple TESIs and source interviews.”

Official guidance has yet to be released but you can read all of the comments here.

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Katie Helbling is a marketing fanatic that enjoys anything digital, communications, promotions & events. She has 10+ 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! 🇺🇸