Suitability, Fitness, and Security Clearances
How are they different? How are they the same?
There is a lot of confusion within the federal workforce over suitability, fitness, and security clearances. Each can ultimately determine whether you can work in a specific government position, and they all involve some form of background investigation. However, suitability, fitness, and security clearances eligibility are different and apply in different circumstances. Below are some brief explanations of suitability, fitness, and security clearance eligibility, how they are different, where they overlap, and how they can be used to influence hiring and firing decisions within the government and military.
Suitability is a determination based on a person’s character and conduct that could impact the integrity or efficiency of the workplace. It is the way the government determines whether an individual meets the minimum character requirements to fill a particular role. It is not concerned with skills, experience, or qualifications but with truthfulness, integrity, and willingness to obey laws and regulations. It broadly seeks to answer the question, “Can this person be trusted to follow the rules, stay out of trouble, and cause the agency to lose the faith of the public?”
Suitability generally applies to federal employees: the competitive service (GS positions), excepted service roles that automatically convert to competitive service, and the senior executive service (SES). It does not apply to the military or government contractors.
Suitability is evaluated based on a position’s risk (high, medium, or low). More authority and decision-making impact mean more risk. High and medium risk positions are considered “Public Trust” positions. The required background investigation depends on the risk of the position. Low-risk positions will usually submit a standard form, SF-85. Public Trust positions require an SF-85P and sometimes a supplemental form called an SF-85P-S.
Special Note: To reduce the burden on investigators, OPM began discontinuing personal interviews that usually accompanied SF-85P submissions. Instead, OPM has been requiring applicants to submit an SF-85P-S, which includes significantly more information than the SF-85P.
Fitness is defined by each agency separately but concerns whether the person has the level of character and conduct necessary to perform work for that agency. It can be more detailed than suitability and usually involves looking at the specific work that the agency does to if a person is a good “fit.” No pun intended; they use that word on purpose. What fitness is and what is required to be declared fit can vary wildly among different agencies. However, each agency must evaluate fitness consistently among its applicants, employees, and contractors. It is determined mainly by the needs of the government agency and any agreements between the agency and civilian companies that define necessary traits or characteristics for a particular job.
Fitness only applies to excepted service positions and contractors. It does not apply to federal employees in the competitive service, SES, or military personnel. A position may or may not require a satisfactory background check or security clearance to be considered fit.
Security Clearance Eligibility is entirely separate from fitness and suitability, even though certain traits or conduct may impact all three. Clearances are broken down by level of risk, the most common being Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Security clearance eligibility is determined by the Department of Defense (DoD), and it is concerned with whether an individual can be trusted with classified information. This broad and somewhat subjective determination is governed by the Adjudicative Guidelines listed in Security Executive Agent Directive 4. Those adjudicative guidelines detail what kind of conduct raises concerns, why, and what steps can be taken to mitigate those concerns. The final decision to grant a clearance is based on whether it is clearly in the interest of national security.
Anyone whose job requires access to classified information is required to maintain a security clearance. It does not matter what type of employee you are or what agency or company employs you. That relationship means that if you lose your clearance, you will probably lose your job.
Investigations are conducted upon hiring. Re-investigations occur every ten years for Secret clearances and five years for Top Secret clearances. The background investigation process can take up to two years or more in some cases, especially if there is derogatory information discovered. The DoD has recently converted to a continuous evaluation program. For more information on continuous evaluation, see our blog post here.
If you are undergoing a suitability, fitness, or security clearance evaluation or have been found unsuitable, unfit, denied a security clearance, or received a statement of reasons, the knowledgeable attorneys at Korody Law in Jacksonville, Florida, are standing by to assist. Korody Law is Florida’s top security clearance law firm. We understand your case means your career and reputation. We have more than a decade of proven experience, earning a national reputation for success, particularly in winning security clearance cases before DOHA judges.