Organizational Management of Conflicting Professional Identities

22 Pages Posted: 15 May 2011 Last revised: 26 Apr 2014

See all articles by Cassandra Burke Robertson

Cassandra Burke Robertson

Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Date Written: May 11, 2011


Professionals in the military have suffered criticism for their failure to counter military excess in the so-called "War on Terror" - especially in the area of torture and maltreatment of detainees. Much of the criticism leveled against such professionals has assumed that they were bad actors who were making a conscious choice to avoid the strictures of their code of ethics. This Article counters that narrative by applying identity theory to offer a more situationist explanation. It argues that some of these professional failures arise from the cognitive incentives faced by individuals in an organization that rewards organizational deference over independent professional advice. Medical, legal, and other professionals in large organizations must deal with two competing identities - one tied to their membership in a profession, and one tied to their role in supporting the organizational mission. Identity theory predicts that when both identities are activated, individuals are more likely to act in accordance with the more salient identity. The Article recommends that military leaders and other organizational managers create formal mechanisms to recognize and reward professional competence even when professional responsibilities diverge from organizational expediency. Such policies may heighten the salience of the professional identity, thereby reducing the risk that individuals will subordinate their professional responsibilities in favor of deference to organizational aims.

Keywords: War on Terror, torture, detainees, organizational management, professional responsibility, codes of ethics, situationism, identity theory, dual professional identities, salience, self-verification, ethics

JEL Classification: K39

Suggested Citation

Robertson, Cassandra Burke, Organizational Management of Conflicting Professional Identities (May 11, 2011). 43 Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 603 (2011); Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-9. Available at SSRN:

Cassandra Burke Robertson (Contact Author)

Case Western Reserve University School of Law ( email )

11075 East Boulevard
Cleveland, OH 44106-7148
United States
216-368-3302 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics