“What can I tell prospective employers about my secret government work?”

Question: Hi, Alan. I worked on a large research project for the government for the last couple of years. Now I am looking for work in the private sector, and am not allowed to talk about it. I really want to move out of government work, but am finding that there’s a large gap in my resume I can’t discuss.

I’m wondering: is there a standard way to say that the information is on an appropriate “need to know” basis? What can I tell the prospective employer? Thanks for your help.

S.I.S. 
San Francisco, California

Answer: Dear S.I.S.:     

While I don’t think there is a “standard” way to express what you need to express, these are the guidelines my clients have followed in circumstances similar to yours:  

1. To begin with, your own words are a good start. As a start, I like what you have suggested: “For three years, I have been working for the federal government in the field of nanotechnology. Unfortunately there are many specifics of my work that can be shared only with others who have a federal ‘Top Secret’ clearance, and a demonstrated ‘need to know.’” (Of course, I used nanotechnology only as an illustration.)

2. Your first focus should be any Government Guidelines given to you, and perhaps signed by you. Your first real “guideline” should be any that the government provided to you, and/or had you agree to. Organizations that are involved in secretive efforts often provide secrecy guidelines, and often require employees to sign that they will adhere to those guidelines. Such guidelines are commonly quite broad, and so general so as to be unhelpful, but this should still be your first focus to find what you can, and cannot, say. Since you are not the first person to face this dilemma, I’m confident you will find that government guidelines do, in fact, exist.

3. In general, anything that is already in the public domain can be shared. Suppose, just for a minute, that over the last two months three scientific journals published articles about one certain area of your work, mentioned the names of two of your supervisors, and also provided specifics about the success your group had using new plastics in nanotechnology. Materials in “the public domain” which you had no role in putting there, are no longer considered protectable secrets. So long as there are no written guidelines that specifically prohibit you, you should not be too concerned about mentioning those already-published facts in your resume and interviews.

4. Of course, keep to the more general side of things, and avoid specific facts, names, events, and findings. If there is one general guideline to follow, it’s “Keep things general.” Though your prospective employers may ask specific questions, your answers should stay on the “vague” side of things, to your best ability. If you worked with high-energy lasers, that is probably OK to say, but if you worked on a new way to make high energy lasers by putting 100 amps of electricity through salt crystals (just my imagination), you should not say that. 

5. You may consider requesting the Government’s permission to disseminate a written statement that you have prepared. I suggest you consider drafting up a written statement that you would like to disseminate with your resume, and forward it to the Security Clearance Officer or Compliance Manager on your government project. People have a much easier time responding to an actual statement than they do to a general inquiry. Of course, send it only to someone you are confident has the necessary security clearance in the first place. This has been perhaps the most effective measure taken by my clients in situations similar to yours. 

S.I.S., I hope these give you a sense that you can get past this “speedbump,” and some of the guidelines to follow. Thanks for writing in, and we hope you’ll continue to visit our blogsite regularly. Consider becoming a Subscriber – It’s free!

My Very Best,
Al Sklover

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