Pay & Engagement – Disney’s HR Magic?

My family and I spent a wonderful two weeks in the States doing the Disney thing. It is a remarkable place, a truly spectacular money-making machine, not a single avenue of potential expenditure has been missed, merchandising perfected in every possible sense and all delivered by a group of incessantly enthusiastic people who make it look all so effortless.

It’s an organisation that poses a paradox to us in the Reward world: Low pay and no overt cash incentives versus truly spectacular customer service levels and employee engagement that’s off the scale.

While I was there, Disney was making headline news because the Unions were up in arms about the pay levels of the staff – sorry “cast members” – and I was genuinely surprised to hear that Disney did indeed pay many of their staff very poorly (more on that here). Hugely successful multi-national organisations are no stranger to such issues, but given the aforementioned engagement and customer service levels, I was surprised. My experience gave no such impression.

One cast member I spoke to, who was managing the queue for children to have their picture taken with Peter Pan, told me that she’d had the same job for five years and described herself as “blessed”. I presumed she meant that she’d had a variety of roles in the park over that period, but no, she had been looking after people wanting to take a picture with a chap dressed as Peter Pan, stood in the same spot, every day, for five years, and she couldn’t believe her luck. She had an achingly consistent smile and a demeanour akin to a five-month-old spaniel who’d just spotted the duck pond, this was genuine and infectious job satisfaction.

You see the thing that gets me, being a cynical old git, is that I always presumed that the excessively friendly American service culture was simply related to tips. If most of your earnings are down to the discretion of the person you’re currently serving, I can understand the drive to be phenomenally accommodating, efficient and courteous time after time…but the Disney cast don’t get tips…and, clearly, they get a fairly meagre salary, yet they still seem to be able to maintain these remarkable levels of enthusiasm.

I wondered whether it was simply a cultural thing, ingrained in the DNA of the American people, but I’ve decided that can’t be true…it certainly wasn’t true of the border control guy who “welcomed” us on arrival and it was also not true of the guy who threw brunch in our general direction in Denny’s on our last day.

Disney has something else…in fact I think it has three somethings…

One something must be the product. Very few people grow up with a negative view of Disney characters and as such I understand that many people would see it as an honour to get the chance to be part of it all. Perhaps this is the perfect company in that respect. Engagement begins in early childhood and if you are lucky enough not to have the dream of working with Mickey shattered by the stark realities of adulthood, then of course you’re going to be delighted with your lot.

How many other professions can offer that childhood-dream-to-reality transition more smoothly? Astronauts? …maybe… Firemen? …perhaps… but Disney does it better and without threatening your life on an hourly basis.

Another factor must be the general magic of the workplace. This author couldn’t help a childlike grin appearing on his face as he met Buzz Lightyear, nigh on elbowing his five-year-old son out the way of the photo opportunity despite being perfectly aware that inside that suit was a guy sweating copiously and dying for a cold beer and a sit down. Such excitement is all around you in Disney, and I‘m sure the cast feed off the incessant giddiness of their customers… I didn’t catch anyone working there and not smiling, not once.

A third consideration which I think has a large part to play, and which was truly striking, was the diversity among the cast members. They have a more diverse workforce than even Snow White managed to assemble; I’d love to see the stats. Not only was the mix of race, culture, religion, age and gender, starkly and notably apparent from the moment you arrived in the car park, but diverse mental or physical abilities were just as apparent. The cast is a true representation of global society and I’m sure that goes a long way to driving the levels of job satisfaction and engagement.

It’s difficult to take much in the way of learning from this experience. Not a lot can be done for those of us who don’t work in a land where childhood magic is the day-to-day reality. Such levels of deeply ingrained engagement in the absence of exceptional reward policies can’t be expected in an insurance business, an engineering firm or a pharmaceutical organisation – can it? I doubt it.

We can certainly manage diversity better, I don’t think that’s even up for debate, we can go a long way to making the workplace as enjoyable as possible – and I’m not just talking about table tennis, craft beer and bean bags – so for the vast majority of us I’m fairly confident that innovative reward practices will remain a significant factor in driving engagement if not to infinity, certainly beyond my current horizon which, given my line of work, and indeed that of most of you reading this, is magic enough…

Have a nice day!