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Disney Motto: Treat Employees Like Customers

ORLANDO, FLA.--Let’s say you work at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” What’s your two-word employee mission?

Well, predictably, it’s “create happiness.” And while it may sound simple, creating an environment where more than 60,000 workers strive to do that each and every day is nothing short of a Herculean task for Walt Disney World’s HR department. It requires teaching employees to go above and beyond, to prepare for the unexpected, to lead by example, and to always—always—make it look fun.

That means even when it’s a muggy 97 degrees—as it was June 21, 2014—and some of the dancers in your 11 a.m. parade are clad in long-sleeved, polyester costumes and bouncing atop a float to a rollicking show tune.

“You have to look at the people you work with every day,” said Walt Kurlin, a Disney facilitator for business programs who helped lead a two-day seminar at Walt Disney World for 75 participants from the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition. “They are your internal customers. How I treat my customers and how I treat my employees—I have to do both the same way.”

For three HR employees here from Missouri-based Southeast Health, with four hospitals and nearly 3,000 employees, the hope was that the seminar—“An Inside Look at Disney’s Culture of Excellence”—might help them change their employees’ experience so that the employees might change their patients’ experience.

“Our challenge is turnover,” said Lincoln Scott, Southeast Health’s vice president of HR. “Anybody around the country who doesn’t have a challenge with turnover, I want to talk to them. Disney has very happy, engaged people who are very serious about being service-oriented.”

Carolyn Dresker, the lone person in charge of HR for Washington state-based Yakima Federal Savings, with 10 branches and 135 employees, attended in hopes of rejuvenating the “welcome home” culture her banks try to instill in workers. “When I think of Disney, I think of the same thing as our ‘welcome home’ program—as though [employees are] welcoming customers into our own personal homes,” Dresker said.

Achieving the high engagement of employees one sees at a Disney park, seminar leaders said, requires adhering to some old-fashioned fundamentals, such as recruiting and training the best employees, building commitment and enthusiasm through communication and recognition, and designing a culture of excellence that puts people first.

That’s probably why Kurlin leaned over to pick up a discarded coffee cup—even though it’s not technically his job—as soon as he walked through the Magic Kingdom’s front gates. And why Jeff Williford, another seminar leader and a Disney senior facilitator, ran around the seminar room at Disney’s convention center—and we mean ran—handing out cannoli when participants answered questions to his liking. It’s why one smiling backstage employee, who had other pressing tasks, held a door open for some 30 seminar participants.

Behind the scenes at the Magic Kingdom, employees roam an underground maze of tunnels known as the Utilidor that lies beneath the park. Besides providing access for everything from food supplies to maintenance, the tunnels are a respite for hardworking employees. Here, safety and comfort are key. Emblazoned along staircases are messages to “always use the handrail” and to never text while climbing—in seven or more languages.

Appreciation is demonstrated in part by displaying pictures of employees being celebrated for the “quality principles” that Disney celebrates—safety, courtesy, efficiency and show (as in “ready for the stage”). Respect and equality are evident in that those on the payroll aren’t “employees”; they’re “cast members”—from custodial workers to stage performers. Workplace perks include the ability to buy a fishing license or register to vote. Executives aren’t inaccessible types who don’t appreciate the challenges of the rank-and-file; pictures of Magic Kingdom executives are displayed prominently on tunnel walls with not just their titles but also their contact information. And during a visit to Disney’s Epcot Cast Services Building, seminar participants witnessed how a computerized inventory system makes retrieving and returning cast costumes so seamless that workers no longer have to wait in long lines to change clothes and head home.

In short, Disney’s aim is to put employees first so that employees, in turn, will develop pride in putting customers first.

From Canon into Action

A nonsensical but oft-repeated question from guests is “What time does the 3 p.m. parade start?” Cast members learn to respond not with sarcasm but with details on the best spot to view the event and stay out of the sun.

When a parent asks where to find Mickey Mouse, cast members are careful around children to never insinuate that there’s more than one Mickey roaming the park.

And when one little girl tossed her Belle doll—of “Beauty and the Beast” fame—over a wall into a construction area, cast members retrieved the muddied Belle, instructed Disney’s cosmetology and costume departments to fix the hair and replace the clothes, and returned the doll to her owner in pristine condition.

True story. 

Dana Wilkie is online editor/manager for SHRM.


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