15 April 2021

Everyone Belongs

Earlier this week Disney announced that under their recently unveiled 5th Key of Inclusion, part of the keys to service and culture, they will be modifying the standards for personal style for Cast Members. This move is long overdue, but a great stride to creating a more comfortable workplace for their Cast Members, a place where authenticity will surely lead to more magical experiences for guests and Cast Members alike. I’d like to take a few moments to talk about why this is a smart business and social move, but also address some of the ideas I’ve seen since the news broke. Let’s start with part of the statement from Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman, Josh D’Amaro.
“Our new approach provides greater flexibility with respect to forms of personal expression surrounding gender-inclusive hairstyles, jewelry, nail styles, and costume choices; and allowing appropriate visible tattoos. We’re updating them to not only remain relevant in today’s workplace, but also enable our cast members to better express their cultures and individuality at work.
“Moving forward, we believe our cast, who are at the center of the magic that lives in all our experiences, can provide the best of Disney’s legendary guest service when they have more options for personal expression – creating richer, more personal and more engaging experiences with our guests.”

I want to start with that last line, the section about creating more personal experiences with guests. Representation matters, and it matters in all areas of the public eye, from music, television, and movies, to reporters, corporate C-suites, and restaurants. Being able to see someone who looks like you, who identifies like you, who expresses themselves like you is critical to each person’s own self-image and how much value they see in themselves. With Cast Members that means that a child who sees a Cast Member with hair, earrings, nail polish, costume gender, or pick your attribute like their own is more likely to feel comfortable in the theme parks and more likely to connect that they have a worth and are a part of the Disney story. That engagement is at the heart of the Disney Parks mission.
Allowing more expression also means greater productivity and less turnover from a business standpoint, and let us not forget that the Walt Disney Company is a business first, second, and third. In a recent study from the Harvard Business Review, allowing employees to be their authentic selves at work reduced turnover by 33% and enhanced the performance of the employees that they did have. In turn, this also made their customers happier, which produced a stronger bottom line overall.
This shift in how Cast Members are permitted express themselves at work also begins to break down the walls between the tiers of Disney management and other fields of the company and the frontline Cast Members who are out there with guests day in and day out. Let’s take one example, a very famous example, to discuss. Joe Rohde, a former Imagineer and longtime personal hero, is most well-known, perhaps even above his storytelling and engineering marvels, for his gargantuan earring. Could you imagine what would happen if a Cast Member had ever shown up in a park, on stage, with a similar earring? While I am certain this type of earring is still a no-go for Cast Members, these changes do begin to shift the balance of expression that has favored the white-collar fields of Disney, positions predominantly held by white males, with the much more diverse demographics that fill in the frontline, underpaid positions.
Those are just a few of the positives that can come from this change, but now let’s start dismantling some of the criticisms I’ve seen since this change was announced now. Let’s start with the most confusing statements I’ve read: It’s the uniform, I want to be able to tell the difference between Cast Members and other guests, I don’t want it to feel like I’m walking down the street in any city in the country. It’s still a uniform, Cast Members aren’t suddenly going to stop wearing their assigned costumes and nametags in favor of jeans and a tee shirt. If all you can see is hair style, beards, tattoos, and not the attraction, shop, or land uniforms and nametags, I’m not sure how to help you. And just to help ease the minds of some guests, they aren’t allowing Cast Members to throw all caution to the wind when it comes to costuming, they still have to wear the appropriate costumes for where they are staffed. You aren’t suddenly going to see a Space Mountain Cast Member costume show up at Festival of the Lion King.
Second statement I’ve seen a lot of: It’s a business and its tradition, Walt wouldn’t want it that way. I’ve used the Walt argument myself many years ago, and then I realized something; Walt isn’t here anymore, no one knows what he would or wouldn’t want, and if he had wanted his company to stay relevant he would have changed policies to keep up with the times just as he did during his lifetime. As for the tradition part, it was also tradition, from the time Disneyland opened through the first years of Walt Disney World for guests to come to the parks in full suits and dresses, as if they were going to a business dinner or church. While Dapper Day has brought this style back to the parks a couple of times a year, it is in no way still the tradition to show up in such attire. If the style of guests is allowed to evolve, why wouldn’t the self-expression of the Cast Members be allowed to as well?
Within this there is this notion that it is a business. I work for a business, I have a dress code, I also have grown a beard that I am sure those from another generation would rather I shave off. However, I am allowed to keep it provided it doesn’t get unruly. For me, my beard is part of who I am. I have it because, one, I look good with a beard, but more importantly, I don’t like the extra weight I carry under my chin and my beard helps me feel less self-conscious about that. If I was told I had to get rid of my beard, I would likely start looking for another position elsewhere. By opening up grooming and other attributes of style, Disney is allowing for more of their Cast Members to present themselves in ways that make them feel as comfortable as I do in my job, and I wouldn’t take that away from anyone.
Lastly, one of the more common arguments out there: Disney is only doing this as virtue signaling. I’m not going to spend much time here, other than to say that this is preposterous. Disney has long tried, and failed in many respects, to keep up with the times and include more people, rather than exclude individuals. They are continuing to move forward and have found another way to be inclusive, but as we stated earlier, they are a business and their ultimate goal is to make more money. Retaining Cast Members and making them more productive is a big part of keeping the money coming in. That’s what this is all about, it isn’t about being disingenuous as a company, this is who the Walt Disney Company is, and will be, into the future and beyond all of our lifetimes.

This change in guidance is a move I applaud, but I also believe there is more to be done under their 5th Key of Inclusion. What they do next, how they develop will be as unique as each of our own personal journeys with inclusivity and understanding those that do not look like us. I, for one, love to hear others’ stories, they challenge my entrenched ideas and give me the chance to grow as a person, it isn’t easy, but it’s always worth it. This is exactly the positive pains I hope to see Disney continue to go through.

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