Contractors vs. Government Employees: Differences in the Clearance Process

January 17, 2024
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Both contractors and government employees who have access to sensitive information must go through the security clearance process. A common question that arises is whether these two groups of people, people who are employed directly by the federal government and people who work for private-sector government contractors, must follow the same procedures or are subject to the same level of scrutiny. The answer is more complicated than you might expect. Regardless of whether you are a federal employee or are employed by a contractor, a federal security clearance attorney can help if you have questions or issues concerning your security clearance.

The Basic Clearance Process Is the Same

Obtaining a security clearance involves two basic components: 

  1. The background investigation – the process of collecting information concerning the applicant and their history, such as whether they have any criminal convictions or financial issues; and
  2. The adjudication process – the process whereby the government (acting through a trained adjudicator) assesses the applicant’s trustworthiness, loyalty, and reliability in order to determine whether they should be granted a security clearance. 

Both government employees and contractors undergo the same basic process when it comes to their background investigation and adjudication process when it comes to obtaining a security clearance. This makes sense when you think about it – contractors and government employees who have access to the same sensitive information should be subject to a uniform screening process. That said, we want to emphasize that while the basic process is the same, there may be subtle differences between how these processes apply to government employees and federal contractors. 

Social Media

One of the principal differences between government employees and contractors is how social media factors into the adjudication and continuous vetting processes. Unless they have an express directive allowing them to do so, federal agencies do not monitor their employees’ social media due to a lack of clear guidance on how to do it or what should be considered relevant. Government contracting firms, however, can and often do monitor their employees’ social media accounts for potential security clearance issues. Contractors could therefore face scrutiny over something that federal employees, for the most part, do not have to worry about.  

Sharing Information

Another significant difference concerns the sharing of information between contractors and the federal government. Currently, only contractors will share information with the government regarding employees who are potentially at risk. Conversely, the government does not share with federal contractors when it identifies a potential issue with one of its employees. This is for a couple of reasons that basically boil down to legal constraints that limit the government’s ability to communicate potentially sensitive information to contractors. 

This is significant because federal employees would be informed of potential issues almost immediately. Contractors, on the other hand, are not given an opportunity to address or mitigate the issue before potentially losing their clearance. That said, it is likely that the contractor could go to work with another contracting firm without the security issue ever coming up, whereas federal employees will have to deal with the issue in every subsequent posting. 

Continuous Monitoring

Another way that the security clearance process can differ for contractors is that they are arguably subject to more stringent continuous monitoring. This is because cleared government contractors are required to have comprehensive “insider threat” programs aimed at identifying potential security issues. These programs may not necessarily provide greater scrutiny, but they are responsible for monitoring fewer employees. As a result, contractors may be more likely to run into problems under continuous monitoring than federal employees. 

Both Contractors and Federal Employees Have the Same Rights

While there may be subtle differences in how the security clearance applies to federal employees and contractors, both groups of people ultimately have the same rights. Whether you are a contractor or an employee of the federal government, there are steps you can take to protect your career. 

A federal security clearance attorney can help you navigate whatever challenges you face so that you can obtain and keep your security clearance. You should contact a security clearance lawyer if you are facing any of the following situations: 

  • You have questions about past conduct in applying for a clearance
  • You are waiting for a security clearance and failed to disclose something
  • Your security clearance was denied
  • You were informed of a potential issue with your clearance as a result of continuous vetting
  • You have a security clearance and have questions about whether a recent issue will impact your clearance

Contact a Federal Security Clearance Attorney at the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, LLC   

Whether you are a contractor or a federal employee, we can help you with your security clearance. Contact us today at 410-514-6099 to schedule an appointment to discuss your clearance and how we can help.