What can disqualify you from a government job?

Getting a job with the government can seem competitive and challenging. While the government aims to hire qualified and ethical candidates, certain factors may disqualify you from consideration. Understanding what can disqualify you from government employment can help you put your best foot forward in the hiring process.

Criminal History

One of the most common reasons applicants get disqualified from government jobs is an unacceptable criminal record. Many government agencies will conduct thorough background checks on applicants and will likely reject candidates with certain types of criminal histories. Factors that may lead to disqualification include:

  • Felony convictions
  • Misdemeanor convictions involving violence, firearms, drugs, or abuse
  • Multiple misdemeanor convictions
  • Pending criminal charges
  • Arrests without convictions in certain circumstances
  • Juvenile offenses in some cases

While every government agency has specific policies, typically any kind of felony conviction and many serious misdemeanors will be disqualifying. However, for some lower-level jobs, agencies may overlook old, minor convictions. Be prepared to explain any interactions you’ve had with law enforcement.

Drug Use

Along with criminal convictions, a history of drug abuse can also lead government employers to reject an applicant. Agencies want to ensure employees who handle sensitive information or public safety duties have high integrity and ethics. Illegal drug use poses risks for security, public trust, and blackmail. At a minimum, expect to be questioned about any illegal drug use going back at least 7-10 years. Some behaviors that may disqualify candidates include:

  • Use of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, LSD
  • Illegal prescription drug use
  • Abuse of legal drugs
  • Selling or distributing illegal drugs
  • Testing positive on a pre-employment drug screening

For lower-risk jobs, an agency may overlook limited experimentation with soft drugs like marijuana if it was in the distant past. But chronic use or involvement in trafficking hard drugs will almost certainly result in disqualification.


Government employers demand individuals with high ethics and integrity. Deception and dishonesty in the hiring process are surefire ways to get disqualified immediately. Some actions demonstrating untrustworthiness that can derail your application include:

  • Lying or omitting information on your resume or application forms
  • Forgery of documents or credentials
  • Cheating on assessments or exams
  • Plagiarism or false claims about achievements
  • Giving false statements during interviews or polygraph tests

Background checks will uncover most fraudulent claims, and getting caught lying even once can ruin your chances. Be completely truthful throughout the hiring process to prove you have integrity.

Financial Problems

Government workers often handle sensitive financial information or transactions as part of their duties. Applicants with histories of severe financial problems may be considered higher risks for fraud, bribery, or other integrity issues. Financial issues that could disqualify candidates include:

  • Bankruptcy within the past 5-7 years
  • Tax liens or nonpayment
  • Foreclosures
  • Wage garnishments
  • Compulsive gambling habits
  • Substantial debt relative to income

While some financial problems are unavoidable, a pattern of irresponsibility may be disqualifying. Be prepared to explain any credit issues and demonstrate you have taken steps to gain control of your finances.

Questionable Foreign Contacts or Activities

Given national security concerns, government employers pay close attention to any questionable foreign affiliations. Depending on the sensitivity of the position, associations with certain groups or foreign nations can jeopardize your candidacy. Activities that may raise red flags and require explanation include:

  • Previous employment or education in hostile foreign countries
  • Ongoing relationships with non-US citizens from adversarial nations
  • Travel to restricted or high-risk regions
  • Financial interests or business dealings in certain foreign countries
  • Memberships in radical groups seeking to overthrow the US government

While foreign contacts don’t automatically lead to rejection, you must fully disclose them and be able to demonstrate they do not compromise your loyalty or security clearance eligibility.

Substance Abuse

Like with criminal and financial backgrounds, government employers want to avoid hiring individuals at risk for substance abuse issues. Drugs and alcohol can impair judgment and threaten workplace safety. A history of substance abuse may signal an unacceptable risk, including:

  • Multiple alcohol-related offenses like DUIs
  • Fired from jobs due to intoxication
  • Failed drug or alcohol tests
  • Diagnosis of alcoholism or addiction
  • DUI charges within the past 5 years

For positions directly involved in public safety, these types of behaviors almost always result in disqualification. For other roles, limited experimentation in the past may be excused after demonstrating a period of sobriety.

Employment Misconduct

How you’ve conducted yourself during previous jobs also plays a role in government hiring. Serious misconduct that would violate federal employment standards is inappropriate. Types of work behavior that can jeopardize your application include:

  • Falsifying time cards or records
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Insubordination
  • Violence or threats against coworkers
  • Dereliction of duties
  • Dangerous negligence or disregard for policy

To reassure employers, be prepared to explain any terminations, demotions, or disciplinary actions on your record.

Improper Use of Information Technology

In today’s digital age, improper computer and internet activity can hurt your candidacy. Government employers need to trust you’ll use IT resources professionally and ethically. Problematic online behaviors may include:

  • Hacking or manipulating electronic systems
  • Accessing unauthorized data
  • Downloading illegal or obscene content
  • Harassment, threats, or bullying on social media
  • Spreading harmful malware or viruses

Any experience with cybercrime, even just allegations, will be thoroughly investigated and could lead to disqualification.

Lack of Candor

Failing to fully disclose requested information to government employers may also prevent you from getting hired. Agencies plan to investigate your background thoroughly, so being evasive or withholding relevant facts will backfire. Examples of problematic behaviors include:

  • Omitting former employer contact details
  • Refusing to explain gaps in your history
  • Failing to list educational achievements or credentials
  • Declining to provide personal or professional references
  • Withholding details about foreign contacts or travel

Always err on the side of maximum transparency so investigators don’t uncover discrepancies.

Unsuitability for Duties

While governments aim to provide equal employment opportunities, some applicants end up disqualified due to inabilities to perform essential job functions. Physical or mental disabilities that prevent completing responsibilities safely, effectively, and efficiently may rule out consideration. Depending on the role, examples might include:

  • Hearing loss or vision impairment for law enforcement positions
  • Color blindness for air traffic control duties
  • Physical limitations that prevent reaching, standing, or walking as needed
  • Inability to obtain necessary travel documents like passports or visas
  • Conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or epilepsy

However, agencies will provide reasonable accommodations for otherwise qualified applicants with disabilities. The key is demonstrating you can carry out core duties safely.

Licensure and Credential Problems

Failure to hold and maintain required licenses, certifications, security clearances, degrees, and other credentials can also disqualify you from government work. Depending on your career field, necessary documentation might include:

  • Degrees from accredited postsecondary institutions
  • Industry certification for specialized fields like IT or engineering
  • Driver’s licenses for roles involving motor vehicles
  • CPR or first aid training for healthcare providers
  • Teaching credentials for educators

All required licenses and documents must remain valid and current. Any revocations, suspensions, or expired credentials need to be corrected before applying.

Inability to Obtain Security Clearance

One key requirement for many government positions is obtaining proper security clearance. Background checks look closely at the above factors to determine clearance eligibility. However, some specific concerns may lead to denial, like:

  • Delinquent debts raising financial or blackmail risks
  • Hiding foreign contacts indicating divided loyalties
  • Associations with individuals involved in criminal activity
  • Habitual drug or alcohol abuse
  • Previous violations of security protocols

Given the time required to process clearances, issues that prevent approval will typically disqualify you from further consideration.


Government human resources teams have a duty to hire only trustworthy, capable, and diligent public servants. While nobody’s record is perfect, serious issues with criminality, dishonesty, negligence, disabilities, or foreign associations may preclude you from civil service. Understanding common background barriers can help you either mitigate concerns or avoid wasting time if disqualification appears unavoidable. Being forthright and displaying integrity offer your best chance at overcoming past mistakes.

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