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Ask HR: How Long Is Too Long to Wait for a Background Check?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here. 

I recently accepted an offer for a U.S. federal job that requires a security clearance. The position is contingent on a background check. I was initially told it would be about two to three months, but I've been waiting for just over four months. Should I be concerned? I will be relocating to take this job, so I'm anxious to get things moving. How can I follow up without badgering them? —Rian

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Certainly, a lot is hanging in the balance as you await the finalization of your background check. I understand your trepidation, but I wouldn't be overly concerned, especially since you've received the offer. I'm sure you're ready to start your new job and finalize the details regarding your relocation. As you prepare for the new position and sort out the many elements of your relocation, it is understandable for you to be anxious.

Start by reaching out to the recruiter for an update. Let them know you are trying to firm up details as you prepare to relocate. It may feel like you are badgering them, but it is just one conversation. If they regularly hire candidates who require a security clearance, they'll be accustomed to fielding requests for updates. Your new employer can let you know if additional information is needed or give a more accurate timeline for starting your new job.

While normal hiring, even when it involves relocation, typically progresses faster, adjudicating a security clearance can significantly delay the process. A background check for a security clearance is far more comprehensive than a traditional one you would typically complete before starting a new job. With a security clearance background check, investigators will look at your education, work, criminal and financial history. Obtaining access to and reviewing all those records can be time-consuming and often depends on third-party cooperation.

If the position requires a top-secret clearance, investigators will likely need to complete reference checks on your friends, neighbors and co-workers. The government needs to ensure that your close relationships do not compromise your loyalty to the United States and your ability to handle classified material. It's a long process to begin with, and because of the pandemic, there may also be a backlog of clearance applications.

Occasionally, the government issues interim clearances to allow individuals to work on a provisional basis until their clearance is complete. Ask if this is a possibility. It may help move things forward.

Best of luck to you! I'm sure you'll do well in your new role.


I work for a contractor based in Washington, D.C., but work out of our client's office in Maryland. D.C. regulations mandate that employers separate paid time off from sick days, effectively giving staff more flexibility to take leave. My company only applies this benefit to employees working out of the D.C. office, which includes my supervisor. It creates a disparity of benefits between people working for the same organization but in different locations. Is this common practice to limit employee benefits based on assignment location? —Warwick

Taylor, Jr.: I realize that your co-workers having more leave simply because they work in another location may seem unfair. However, it is common practice for employers to provide leave benefits to employees based on their assigned work location.

Many employers like yours offer all employees a baseline paid-time-off (PTO) benefit. If mandated by the state, employers will provide additional leave as required. For instance, about 16 states require employers to provide employees with a minimum number of sick days each year. State regulations apply to the physical work location, not where employees live or where the employer is based. Take an employee who lives in West Virginia but commutes to D.C. She or he would fall under D.C. employment regulations since that is their primary work location, even if their company headquarters is in Delaware.

There are varying factors to consider when designing a PTO program. One is the local paid-leave requirement, and another is cost. Your company may need to determine what best suits its budget to tailor leave benefits to an employee's work location rather than provide the same benefits to all employees. On the other hand, employers that operate in multiple states should communicate to employees how their given assignment location impacts their benefits. Such notification would help quell any confusion arising from perceived inconsistency.

I hope this gives you some perspective on employer approaches to applying alternate leave policies across multiple states. However, if you still have concerns about the fairness of your benefits, I'd encourage you to speak to human resources.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.