Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2015.0975

This paper examines how people navigate organizational pressures to embrace a professional identity that—like the ideal worker image—centers on devotion to work. My field study of a consulting firm demonstrated that although some people easily embrace this expected identity, for others, it conflicts with their experienced professional identity. I found that people cope with this conflict by straying from the expected identity while passing as having embraced it or revealing their deviance. Analyzing 115 interviews, performance evaluations, and turnover data, I trace how and why people manage their deviance differently across audiences within the organization, show the interdependence of these efforts, and illuminate consequences for how they are perceived and evaluated. In the firm I studied, although both men and women strayed, men were more likely than women to pass. Together, these findings highlight the importance of deviance and its management to people’s professional identities, offer new insights regarding the ideal worker image’s relationship to gender inequality, and enrich theory on passing and revealing.

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