I’ve seen every background imaginable: astronaut, prime minister, Navy SEAL. And every hobby under the sun: world-class sushi chef, axe-throwing champion, ice carver.
Among the most memorable résumés, though, was one that listed an 18-month “community service project” that involved working on a “Friends of the Highway” project. As it turned out, the “assignment” was actually 18 months of prison time. The person didn’t get the job—but not for the reason you might suspect. It had nothing to do with the fact he’d served time, but rather because he’d so blatantly lied about it.
When you face a potential sticking point in your career history, remember your “ACT”: be authentic, make a connection and give others a taste of who you really are. This applies to writing your résumé, answering questions in job interviews and networking with others inside and outside the company.
Sure, relying on your “ACT” may seem a lot easier if your background is, say, a Harvard MBA or a Navy SEAL. But not so much (or so you fear) if your background includes time gaps between jobs, backtracking to lesser titles and narrower responsibilities, and multiple lateral moves that raise questions about why you didn’t advance. But this is precisely where many people struggle to explain career U-turns and setbacks all the time.
Here are the four top ways to turn obstacles into opportunities.
Know your red flags: You took a chance to join a startup that later went bust. You changed industries but found you were a bad fit. You went from large and hierarchical to small and entrepreneurial (or vice versa), only to struggle with the culture. Don’t eliminate these professional missteps from your résumé or avoid them in an interview. You should know your red flags! Anticipate the questions the hiring manager will ask and be prepared with intelligent, thorough answers that emphasize what you learned: e.g., where you are most comfortable, how you can best contribute, handling failure and developing personal resilience
Little white lies: As they say, the truth sets you free. Don’t give into the temptation to lie, exaggerate or stretch the truth to hide a sticking point on your résumé. If you’re caught even fudging the dates of employment to cover a gap, for example, everything on your résumé or that you say in an interview becomes suspect. More than that, having the courage to tell the truth showcases your character. I am reminded of the person who was incredibly honest and listed “convicted felon” on her résumé. I’ll never forget the story: she had been convicted of manslaughter after killing her horribly abusive spouse. She called the hiring manager and asked, “Would you hire an ex-convict?” After many questions and excessive due diligence, the employer hired her. From what I hear, she’s a great employee.
Overcoming “job hopperitis”: Granted, it’s not as big a deal as it was years ago. Today, people spend less time on average in their jobs. Millennials, for example, change jobs after two or three years and could work for as many as 30 employers over the course of their careers. But a string of very short job hops, with never more than one year in each position, will probably raise a red flag in an interview with a hiring manager. Be prepared to address these moves truthfully. For example, if you were finding your way professionally, say so—and, as noted above, put the emphasis on what you’ve learned from these varied experiences. Don’t let someone else’s perception become your reality. The best way to stand out is to show the hiring manager how you would add value.
“One of these things is not like the other…”: Lastly, make sure that your professional background matches across all venues. When I am preparing to interview a candidate, I always check the person’s resume against his or her LinkedIn profile. Although wording may differ, I want to see the same job titles and basic information. Gaps, different time frames and inconsistent information signal a potential problem with either the résumé or the way the person is trying to present himself or herself online—often to appear to be more advanced in their career than the really are. This is easy to avoid with a little common sense. You will be exposed, either through due diligence, background checks or references.
Ideally, you want to show a career path that looks like a staircase, leading you ever higher. But when that’s not your reality, you need to own it.
A version of this article appears at Forbes.com