Background Checks for Federal Employees- What You Need to Know

By Sam •  Updated: 02/17/23 

We all know the excitement of getting a job offer.

But what if the offer was immediately followed by the words “you might not actually get the job”?

If you applied for a federal job, this could be your fate.

All federal employees are subject to background checks and cannot receive a formal offer until they’ve been given proper clearance. I wrote this post to help potential federal employees navigate their background checks and land their first federal job.

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I’ve summarized the major points of the article in this YouTube video.

What are the different types of background checks for federal employees

The federal government performs background checks on all permanent employees. The federal government employs a wide variety of positions. Obviously, the government does not need to give a dairy inspector in Iowa the same scrutiny as someone who has access to military secrets.

Therefore, there are several different levels of background checks for federal employees to determine their suitability for the position.

Every employee must undergo a standard background check (standard form 85). This is also called an SF-85 or an OPM-SF-85 for those of you who speak government.

SF85- Background check for federal employees graphic

Certain federal jobs that deal with the national security of the United States also require a security clearance. These come in three flavors: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The SF-86 form is used by the government to collect information on employees applying for a security clearance and initiate the process.

I’m just going to talk about regular background checks in this post. If you’re applying for a sensitive position and stressing about whether or not you can obtain a security clearance, check out r/SecurityClearance/ on Reddit. I see lots of great discussion on that subreddit every day.

When do federal employees undergo background checks?

As a long time federal employee, I remember lots of different background check policies. Does anyone else remember the big push for an 80 day hiring model? Good luck trying to complete a background investigation on that timetable. In those days, the government would start the extensive background investigation after you started your job.

I’m guessing you would be terminated if you failed your background check. However, I can’t remember anyone ever failing a background check in my limited experience.

This model changed a few years ago when Congress passed legislation requiring background checks for federal employees *before* a formal offer was given. (I wish I could find news articles or a reference to when this was implemented). We now offer employees “tentative” offers.

Tentative vs. Official offer

The fact that federal employees must undergo background checks before they receive an employment makes the hiring process tough on potential employees and the hiring manager.

From an employee perspective, if you’re applying for a federal job from industry, don’t expect to start any time soon.

Even if you ace the interview you will need to wait for HR to give you a “tentative offer”. Then you will undergo a background investigation. If everything goes well, finally, you will be given a formal offer and a chance to set a starting date.

This delay also affects the employer. I know my workplace lost a lot of great candidates who were interviewing for federal/non-federal jobs at the same time and the private sector was able to move faster to hire them. (A point which did not come up when I compared government vs. private sector jobs). Even if the preferred candidate takes the job, we have to work with less staff until the background check is completed and the employee can be onboarded.

How long does it take?

While the government strives to complete the background checks as quickly as possible, there are a lot of forms and moving pieces in this process and you might have to wait a couple of months to receive a formal offer. That can be difficult to do if you don’t have a job and need the income right away.

I guess the positive news is that once you’ve made it into the federal system you can move between federal jobs with relative ease. (Unless you are applying for a job that requires one of the security clearances. However, in that case, you should have stable government employment to tide you over until you find out the results of the security clearance).

Why does the government perform background checks on federal employees?

USAJobs has some great information about background checks for federal employees and the employment process. The government performs background checks to:

The government gives each position a score based upon its “sensitivity” and “risk”. Sensitivity measures how closely the job protects national security (i.e. access to classified information). Risk measures how likely the job affects public trust in the government; there are moderate risk positions and high risk postions.

If your job has low sensitivity and risk, you will fill out the normal SF-85. Otherwise, if the position requires higher sensitivity, then you go through the security clearance process. If the position requires a high degree of public trust (for example a moderate risk position), there is a third type of background check for federal employees, the SF-85P.

What is the government looking for in a background check?

When you fill out the SF-85 you will need to include your employment history and where you have lived for the past 5 years. The government wants to make sure you will not become an inside threat.

You should answer the form truthfully.

If you have blemishes in your past, you are better off disclosing them since the government will likely learn about your mistakes in the investigation.

If you’re truthful about them, then it shows that you are acting honestly. On the other hand, if you say you’ve never done drugs but have a drug conviction, the government might wonder what else you’re lying about.

SF86- Security clearance graphic

You will need to disclose any periods of unemployment you have had. Be honest about this as well. The government has already given you a tentative offer and wants to hire you. The government won’t care that you spent some time out of the workforce. But they do want to make sure you weren’t actually being trained in a terrorist bootcamp during your time off. So just be honest that you were divorced, unemployed, and living in your parent’s basement for a few years. Your supervisor and future coworkers will never see that information.

The government doesn’t want to hire perfect people. They just want to make sure that you’re not an inside threat.

FAQs on Background Checks for Federal Employees:

Will the government contact my current employer?

Yes. The government must contact your current employer. Obviously, this creates a weird scenario if you haven’t given notice at your current job.

However, if you look closely at the SF-85 form, you need someone who can verify you worked there. The investigators do not necessarily need to contact your supervisor. Do you have anyone in your office whom you trust and could speak to your employment history? You may wish to put them down as a contact. Don’t forget to disclose if you plan on having a second job as a federal employee.

Why do I have to disclose my social security number?

Your social security your unique identifier. While there may be many John Smiths (some of which have the same birthday), you are the only person with your social security number. The government takes personally identifiable information (PII) very seriously and will safeguard records with personal information.

What if I have done drugs?

The SF-85 only looks back 1 year on drug use. If you read my post on drug testing for federal employees, you should know what drugs the government tests for and their residence times in your body. I think the safest bet is to be honest about your former drug use.

The Security Clearance subreddit has a great post about drug use and obtaining a security clearance. While the typical background check for federal employees is not as intense as a security clearance vetting, it appears that honesty is the best policy here.

FYI- you have plenty of space to explain any irregularities on the SF-85 and if you do disclose prior drug use, I would recommend explaining what happened and how you will avoid illegal drugs as a federal employee.

What if I have a felony?

In writing this post, I was surprised to learn that a felony does not automatically preclude you from federal employment. Again, you should be truthful in filling out your background check. If you have rehabilitated yourself, you should disclose the steps you took and note why this stage of your life is behind you.

Will the government check my credit score?

Yes. The government will check your credit score as part of their background investigations. You may wish to disclose any previous credit problems or bankruptcies in the SF-85. Will this affect your job offer? If your job does not involve public trust or finances, your credit shouldn’t affect your ability to faithfully conduct your job.


Sam i.e. "Gov Worker" started working for the government at age 18 and loved it so much that he never left. He started GovernmentWorkerFI in 2019 to help fellow federal employees understand their benefits, take control of their finances, and live their best lives.

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