surprise visit from background investigator — at current workplace

A reader writes:

I am writing on behalf of my husband. He has been employed with a small company since October after being unemployed since February. Over the last year, he has applied for a number of positions, including one with a large federal department. The hiring process for this position is lengthy and the steps associated with it are pretty unclear. He is not even sure if he wants this position since he hasn’t yet had any in-person contact with anyone from the department. Everything thus far has been via email, forms, and video interview.

The position he is in the running for doesn’t operate with a high amount of security; he would not be armed and the words “secret” or “private” would not be in his title. He has completed an interview test, fingerprints, and is currently undergoing a background investigation. I work in a similar position for a different federal agency. From my experience, my background investigation involved a questionnaire being sent to various members of friends and family and possibly a few phone calls being made. We are also familiar with friends undergoing similiar background checks, which have involved us being interviewed regarding our relationships with them.

Today, while he was in the field performing his work duties at his current position, his manager contacted him to let him know that a federal detective was at his current place of employment looking for him. As I mentioned, he has been there for less than 6 months and is technically still under probation. Of course, his current manager was completely caught off guard by this, as everything happened without any notice. He informed his manager that he did in fact apply for a position with a federal agency in the last year. The detective informed his manager that he signed a release form last month for the background investigation to take place. Of course he signed the release form! How else would the hiring process continue?!

The investigator wants to set up a meeting with him and his manager next week. His manager thinks this is ridiculous and does not think that he should be spending time meeting to further the employment opportunities of his staff. The investigator also mentioned that he would be coming by our home, most likely without notice.

(The relevant federal regulations do say: “It is a requirement of a background investigation, and actual employment, that your current employer be contacted. We must verify your employment data and make other inquiries concerning your background. If you are a Federal employee or contractor, for example, it may be that your current employer needs you to have a security clearance for the work you do. In other instances, you are asked to complete the investigative form for an investigation and clearance only after a conditional offer of employment has been made for a position requiring a security clearance.”)

We are both in a little shock about this situation. I think this is simply absurd. Are there any rules regarding this? What is the best way to go about handling the situation from here on out with his current manager? Could his current job be in jeopardy?

I suspect that the problem here is that your husband was operating according to private sector norms. In the private sector, background checks and reference checks generally don’t happen until the very end of the hiring process — and people normally have an idea of when they’re reaching that point (often because they’re directly told). But in federal hiring, background checks often start sooner … and moreover, federal hiring often involves far less communication with candidates, meaning that your husband could be at the very end stages of the hiring process — i.e., background check time — without realizing it.

As you note, though, your husband signed a release form agreeing to have this background investigation begin. He gave his permission for this. He might not have quite understood what that would mean, or when it would happen — but those forms are pretty literal about this stuff: they don’t hide the fact that they’re going to talk to your current employer, and they don’t hide the fact that when you authorize the investigation to begin, it’s going to begin.

Now, is there a conflict between these practices and many candidates’ need to keep their job search secret from their current employer? Absolutely there is. It indicates a total lack of recognition that some employers fire people if they hear they’re job searching, or penalize them in smaller ways. It’s hugely problematic. But at least for now, it’s still the way the government hiring works.

In any case, your husband is going to need to decide how to handle this with his manager. Does he want to come clean? Does he want to say he applied back before accepting his current job? That’s for him to figure out, which he should do based on his knowledge about how his manager operates and the likely consequences of each option.

But he should also pay more attention to forms he’s signing. Because they did tell him quite explicitly that this was coming, and he had a chance at that point to ask for more information about the process or to decide how to handle it with his boss.

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