Anyone who's ever had a racy job must grapple with how and whether to reveal that experience.
FORTUNE — When Sheila Hageman was 25 her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hageman had worked as a stripper for seven years, and her mother’s illness led her to ask, “What am I doing with myself and my body and my life?”
She decided to quit. As she planned her return to more mainstream work, she knew her resume would require a little cover-up, a few euphemisms. So she called herself an actress or a dancer or “an exotic dancer,” she recalled. She quickly landed a job as a waitress and enrolled in college, where she studied English.
Anyone who’s ever worked in a racy job, whether as a police decoy or a pornography promoter, must grapple with how and whether to show that experience on their resume and professional profiles. They have to decide what to tell a recruiter, how to answer questions during a job interview, and what to say after they are hired.
Some millennials take offbeat part-time jobs during college or just afterward to cover student loan payments and keep themselves afloat. Generation Opportunity, which advocates for youth employment among those ages 18 to 29, estimates the youth effective jobless rate at 15.8%, which includes discouraged workers and off-the-books jobs. Not all have danced naked, as Hageman did in clubs in New York City, but many worked as bouncers, phone sex operators, or other jobs that can sound unsavory and unprofessional.
Of course, plenty of former insider trading convicts — such as Michael Milken, Martha Stewart, and George Soros — now run think tanks, foundations, and successful enterprises, so career reinvention is certainly possible.
The ranks of career changers may increase this year as the job market strengthens and the U.S. economy’s growth is predicted to be the strongest since the recession. A lower jobless rate could entice more people to rejoin the professional and business classes.
“Honesty is usually the best policy, but you’ve got to be careful not to hit them in the face with it,” says Judi Wunderlich, co-founder of Wunderland Group, a Chicago area talent and recruitment firm.
She suggests that individuals need to accept their past and not show embarrassment or shame. “If they’re ashamed of it, I’m going to wonder, ‘why are they doing something that they are ashamed of?’”
Some years ago, Wunderlich says she saw a potential client, a young graphic designer and father of two, who worked as a stripper to earn money between jobs. He was candid about this when Wunderlich spoke to him on the phone, and she intended to invite him in for a longer in-person interview. Then his portfolio arrived and inside were photos of himself “in various stages of undress.” He said they showed his Photoshop skills.
That lapse in judgment cost him the opportunity. Usually, though, Wunderlich says she’s much more likely to work with someone who is forthright about their previous work experience, so she can help them navigate interviews and answer questions carefully, but truthfully.
Sometimes, just one or two legitimate jobs or clients can repaint a professional profile.
You could also use a generic term to describe your old job, said Donna Schilder, a career and leadership coach based in southern California. Phone sex operator? Why not customer service specialist, instead?
“The word consultant could be a good word to use to describe a lot of racy jobs,” says Schilder. She says she had one client who created and owned a website that offered men products to seduce women and wanted to move to selling healthy living products. He used many of the same skills and sold a more altruistic product in the end.
Susan Ireland, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Resume, notes that when employers check references it’s best if the job title listed matches what the former employer will verify. But she added job seekers may use general descriptions such as “stage performer” or “live entertainer” without capitalizing them.
“It’s most important that a resume be honest. However, being honest does not mean ‘telling all.'” says Ireland, adding that all jobseekers to target and tailor a resume to the job they’re seeking.
To be sure, some sectors are not going to consider a resume with three years as an X-rated movie producer experience on it. Conservative companies and industries, from law firms to religious-based organizations, may not be the right place to launch a new professional path.
Yet having an unusual work history can set you apart from other candidates, especially if your spicy job comes along with impeccable skills and a degree from a respected university. Show how the job has cultivated your creativity and courage or your focus on success, says Schilder.
As for Hageman, her transition happened gradually as she worked first as a waitress, then as a secretary, and then as a highly paid administrative assistant at a financial services firm. She says she is aware that her personal appearance helped her land some of those jobs, which she worked while earning her college degree. She never mentioned that she had been a stripper because people “make assumptions about what kind of person you are.” Today, after earning her MFA, she teaches creative writing and literature at two universities and is a yoga instructor.
Her career advice to others: Don’t be ashamed of your past work, but unless it’s relevant to what you’re seeking, don’t bring it up.
In 2012, Hageman published a book called Stripping Down: A Memoir, so all the parents at her children’s school and her college students know about her previous career. “Strippers are kind of accepted now,” said Hageman. “I have used it to my advantage now…. It’s cool to have been a stripper, because it’s in my past.”