The HR Hat is Always On—Even at the Happiest Place on Earth


By Erez Harel, CHRP

With the end of the school year nearing, I have already had the good fortune of a memorable Spring Break trip with my wife and kids to the Happiest Place on Earth—while celebrating Disneyland’s 60th anniversary of creating magic memories for all ages. And while definitely on vacation, I was amazed how HR was never far from mind.

One of the greatest joys of going to Disneyland as a parent is seeing my children take it all in—the atmosphere, the rides, the characters—and their unique reactions. I learned that my four-year-old son is just as enamoured with the characters from Its a Small World as he is meeting a Stormtrooper. I also learned that my six-year-old daughter adores roller coasters and log rides; she also truly believes that Tinkerbell and her princess friends were not only real, but were only on a break from the magic palace to meet their loyal subjects for autographs.

People, Pixie Dust and Business Potential
I also learned something about myself. I learned that even on holiday my HR hat doesn’t come off—even when replaced by a Darth Vader cap with mouse ears. While my daughter left more confident than ever that Disneyland is powered by pixie dust, I left understanding a bit more of what makes this place so special and continues to attract and entrance multiple generations of people from around the world every day. At the core, that magic comes from their people—characters and caretakers alike—and their interactions with us.

As an HR business partner working with senior leaders and their teams, I’ve taken away some key learnings which I hope to use to challenge, reinforce and apply to their own interactions with their direct reports and external clients. What follows is a quartette of key moments in the park, accompanied by HR observations and questions they brought most immediately to mind. I hope you will find useful to apply in your workplace.

Magic Moment #1: Something More Than a Parade
Lining up on the side of Main Street to watch the 60th Anniversary character parade, the music was pumping, the floats and costumes, beautiful and stunning. I noticed that we were standing near a space specifically dedicated to people with disabilities—in this case members of the Make-a-Wish Foundation—who had a front row seat to all the action and festivities. I also couldnt help notice that, time and again, the characters would jump off their floats or finish their dance and intentionally come over to our area to greet those from the foundation and make a wish come true.

HR Takeaway—Embed a culture of respect and inclusion: While this is the right thing to do in the workplace from a compliance standpoint, these small, intentional acts of inclusion are noticed by customers and employees alike—and actually become what the culture and brand is all about; with that comes loyalty.

HR Questions to Ask: What are you doing to help foster a culture of respect in your workplace? Are you coaching your mangers to hold their employees accountable during instances of bullying and disrespect? Do employees know that bullying and acting disrespectfully will not be tolerated and is there is a facility to raise concerns without fear of retribution?

Do you have a grasp of the current state of employment equity and inclusion in your company and what am I doing to positively impact this? Finally as a result of these internal actions (or identified opportunities for improvement) are you aware of what your company’s brand is like in the public domain and are senior leaders in tune with this?

Magic Moment #2: The Character Never Breaks
When the Main Street parade came to its inevitable conclusion—much to the dismay of my children—I noticed that despite the enormous doors closing in on the final float, none of the dancers or characters stopped entertaining for an instant. Even though those doors effectively broke their line of sight with most of the guests, they didn’t once break character—even when many in the audience already had their backs turned to gathering their things.

HR Takeaway—Follow-Through Matters: Simply by not breaking character while the parade door was closing in on them, these performers ensured that the “magic” was kept alive. This concept of on stage/off stage has been written about in various literature around Disney and was very evident here. Essentially, it comes down to putting your best foot forward at all times and fulfilling your duties in the best possible way. (Note: see “Disney U” in the Further Reading section for more on this.)

HR Questions to Ask: In our HR roles, particularly in the business partner capacity, many of us have the unique opportunity to coach our leaders on managing performance—are you holding your leaders accountable to holding their managers and employees accountable for poor performance? Does your company have goal-setting program whereby employees are accountable for reaching those goals and if not, answering why not?

On the flip side—are you ensuring that your leaders are providing recognition to their employees for great performance and does your company have the infrastructure to support this—such as a formal recognition program or pay-for-performance compensation program? If not, why not?

Finally, how are you on the follow-through front and how do you know you are providing the best service possible to your clients?

Magic Moment #3: Reinvent to Stay Relevant
After strapping myself into my seat on the Space Mountain rollercoaster ride and checking to make sure my daughter was safely secured next to me, I had a few moments to reflect on how much reinvention Disney has undergone, even over the past few years. From the Disney app we immediately checked upon entering the park to find where the characters were situated to what wait times were like for each ride to the fact that Space Mountain is actually now HyperSpace Mountain—tying the allure of their Star Wars acquisition to an age old favourite. The ride itself was thrilling and truly felt as described, “like a raging dogfight between Rebel X-wing starfighters and Imperial TIE fighters.”

HR Takeaway—Change is Good: By adding all of these app features Disney utilizes a mobile space that people are already very familiar with and makes it easier for their customers to do more within less time—which is greatly appreciated. In addition, by reinventing Space Mountain and adding the Star Wars features, they brings back customers who have ridden the ride numerous times, keeping an almost 40-year-old ride fun, fresh and relevant.

HR questions to Ask: What have you or your colleagues done in HR to keep things relevant and technologically advanced in your company—not for the sake of technology itself, but to bring you and your organization closer to your goals? Have you looked at HRIS advancements—or even opportunities to bring this important information to Smart Phones or tablets that no doubt your company is already using?

Have you reinvented your value proposition from a back-end, personnel function to a business partner at the decision table? Have you as an individual freshened up with courses, participated in professional development, or completed that designation or degree that is still outstanding? The ways in which we might reinvent to stay relevant abound on personal and professional levels alike.

Magic Moment#4: At the End of the Day, Employees Make the Difference
Heading back to our hotel on the final evening of our stay, my wife and I reflected on our time at the park and what was it that made it so rewarding and memorable. It came back to the people—like the photographer at the Disney/Mickey Mouse monument who willingly and with great joy and humour took pictures of our family (with our camera) during our first few minutes at the park. Or the princesses at the meet-and-greet who were so kind to my daughter as they took time to answer all of her prince/princess-related questions with kindness and empathy. It was that Australian Thor character who picked up my son on his shoulders in the new Avengers building and laughed at his jokes and made him feel like one of the team. At the end of the day it was the people and how they treated us that made this trip so memorable and satisfying.

HR Takeaway—While Change is Good, Engaged People Are Key: Knowing that customer experiences at Disneyland are directly affected by their interactions with employees at the park, surely this would be seen in almost every organization, including your own. Engaged employees who are excited to be at work, knowledgeable, and truly care about providing a seamless customer experience, absolutely make the difference—and it is the sum total of all of these experiences which contribute strongly to a company’s brand.

HR Questions to Ask: From an engagement perspective, what are you doing to influence the business to take employee engagement seriously? What is your approach to employee survey action plans, stay interviews, recruitment strategies, mentoring, career development, and employee recognition? Does your company have clearly communicated values and does every manager provide their employees with line of sight of their activities to those values?

Concluding Thoughts
While I’m sure when Walt Disney first opened Disneyland on July 17th, 1955, his focus was very much on the experience, he probably never considered an HR guy from Vancouver taking notes on all the things done so well that could be translated back into more traditional work spaces. That said, I do think that their Disneyland’s mastery of a number of critical HR, organizational, and customer service principles is what still defines the magic from so many after 60 years and counting.

My hope has been to share just a few of those experiences, so that you too might pick up a bit of ‘HR pixie dust’ to apply to either to your own work or how you influence your business partners.

If you are interested in more reading on the topic, here are some classics:

  1. The Disney Way, Revised Edition: Harnessing the Management Secrets of Disney in Your Company Paperback – Nov 9 2006 by Bill Capodagli (Author), Lynn Jackson (Author)
  2. Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service Hardcover – Nov 8 2011 by The Disney Institute (Author), Theodore Kinni (Author)
  3. Disney U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees Hardcover – Mar 26 2013

Erez Harel, CHRP is a senior HR business partner with CHC Helicopter, a BC-based company with a talented and passionate global team providing offshore transportation to the oil-and-gas industry, flying search-and-rescue and emergency medical missions, and delivering maintenance/repair/overhaul and support services. He can be reached via LinkedIn.

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