Disney World sued over Dress Code/Religious Discrimination

I am going to make a blanket statement about the scheduling practices of Walt Disney World resort and parks. I know there are exceptions to this, but overall this appears to be their default practice. Disney World does not discriminate against religions when hiring or scheduling. In fact they don’t care about your religion at all. All they want to know is that when you’re scheduled for a shift you show up or you get someone to cover it for you. If you are scheduled to work on a Saturday, but you don’t work on the Sabbath, it’s your responsibility to find coverage or you can be penalized and eventually fired for missing work.

If you’re lucky you’ll get a manager who never schedules you for days you can’t work, but if that manager is transfered you’re likely on your own. You get the picture. In this way, Disney can’t be said to be discriminating based on religion, since they don’t take it into account at all. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, that’s just the way it is.

Now there is a lawsuit that claims Disney is discriminating against one religion based on the famous ‘Disney Look’.

A Broward County resident has sued Walt Disney World, claiming he was discriminated against because his religion prevents him from conforming to the Disney dress code.

Miami Attorney Matt Sarelson filed the suit in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on behalf of Sukhbir Channa. Channa, 24, is a practicing Sikh who wears a turban, a beard and keeps his hair long in accordance with his religious beliefs.

In his suit, Channa says he was hired in October 2005 as a seasonal college musician, which requires parade and atmospheric performances. At the time, he was a student University of South Florida. In his parade performances, Channa says he wore a toy soldier hat to cover his head. In the atmospheric performances, he was initially allowed to wear a red turban in place of the red beret the other musicians wore. However, even after rehearsing for both jobs, the lawsuit claims Channa was removed from the atmospheric position because he lacked the “Disney look.”

I’m wondering if Disney’s defense in this case will be the same as for scheduling. Disney calls its on-stage employees “cast members” and expects them to play a themed role in addition to what ever tasks their position requires. For a long time Disney prohibited facial hair, heavy makeup, and more using these standards. But now that hiring and retaining new employees is more difficult, Disney has been forced to relax these standards. That might give the plaintiff an opening in this case.

I sense there is more to this story that may come out in court. Either way, it’s a case to keep an eye on. (Read)

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10 Responses to Disney World sued over Dress Code/Religious Discrimination

  1. Sergio says:

    Disney has way too many lawyers and I’m sure they’re well prepared for something like this. It’s theater. Disney has every right to decide who fits in with the “show.” if its not a right fit then they can exercise the right to remove someone from the cast.

  2. Vallen says:

    When cast members are hired we sign a contract that says we understand the standards that Disney requires of us when conforming to Disney look and that we are “cast members”, not “employees”, ergo we must dress in the “costume” Disney stipulates. It’s a legal term that allows Disney to keep those standards. All cast members have to conform to this and as far as I know there has been no relaxing of those standards. It would be very interesting news to this cast member indeed if that’s the case because last I checked we still have managers pushing the Disney look at my location and a full department devoted to making sure we keep up to standard. Plus he was hired in 2005? No way would he be able to get away with wearing a different hat then. Either he’s an idiot for trying to get a job with Disney in the first place or he’s suing to rob Mickey’s pocket.

  3. Adam Pham says:

    I was never aware that Disney did not allow days off for religious reasons. As a CP, a fellow Mormon cast member was always scheduled to have Sundays off. However, because he took Sundays off, he never had two days off back to back. His other day off would be Wednesdays, due to the seniority of full time CMs to have Saturdays and Sundays off. I’m pretty sure that they accommodated this schedule, and not because we had a nice manager or scheduler. From what he told me all the CPs from BYU had similar arrangements to have Sundays off.

    Since the plaintiff worked in Entertainment, I have to agree with Sergio. If whatever face character/performer a person is applying for has particular requirements or characteristics, they are allowed by law to “discriminate”.

    However, the blanket statement that all Cast Members are a part of the show and the Disney Look being one set of requirements, I don’t believe that the courts will deem that legal.

    The Disney Look even applies to off-stage workers and Disney professional CM’s. eg. people who work in legal counsel or those who work in the Disney Learning Centers. They are not part of the “show” for guests, yet are required to abide by these standards. Show quality for the fellow cast members they work with… I guess.

    For non-entertainment CMs, and especially for off-stage CMs, I believe Sikhs and any other religions should be accommodated. Sikhs keep their hair groomed even though they don’t cut it. That’s partially why they wear turbans, because they wrap their hair up. Their hair is not hanging down to their waists. The Disney Look is meant to uphold the “American Ideals” of a well groomed person. We don’t want to see CMs with visible tattoos, mohawks, and unkempt goatees because it portrays someone who doesn’t take care of their appearance, but Sikh facial hair is left uncut out of respect and not because they don’t care how they look.

    @ Vallen: I guess I agree with you in the sense that he’s just gold digging for money. He should have taken this up with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. However, I don’t think he’s an idiot. If his claims are true, he was able to perform in the parade, which means they accommodated him. Why he couldn’t continue performing in those parades to maintain employment would suggest possible discrimination.

    And for non-entertainment roles, I see no reason why Disney must discriminate. If a Muslim woman wanted to work as a CM at Soarin, I don’t see why she couldn’t be accommodated with a blue or red hijab by costuming, if ACTUAL flight attendants on British Airways are allowed to wear a hijab as part of their uniform for example. Plus it would more accurately represent the America of today without violating the principles behind the Disney Look of being well groomed in appearance.

  4. Steve says:

    Disney is very inconsistent with their “Disney look” guidelines. I think this guy has every right to sue Disney. I worked for Disney for two years as a CP and as a full time employee, and their dress code standards ARE NOT set in stone. I worked in 3 areas, and I eventually quit over a “Disney look” issue. There were things that I was able to wear and do in certain areas that I suddenly was not allowed to do in others, and I was just a operations cast member at Studios. With Muslim issues being such a forefront issue in the culture as a whole, this definitely looks like a discrimination case.

    If Disney is supposed to be all about diversity, and other cultures they can’t ask other cultures to come work in their park and insist that they conform to “our” ….or in reality “Disney” culture standards. The guy isn’t an idiot for applying with Disney knowing full well their Disney look standards. Disney’s a bit ignorant to expect and welcome other nationalities and expect them to conform to new standards and drop rituals for what eventually boils down to corporate standards. Imagine if other companies across the country were allowed to get away with the same crap Disney gets away with? The Disney look isn’t set in stone, it’s not a mandate. It’s simply a standard a company…that happens to be Disney…shoots for. But the country has standards too, and they should trump something as trivial as “the Disney look.”

    Disney gets away with a lot of racism for the sake of “show” and it’s tolerated. I always found it a bit weird that almost all of their international students work in the World Showcase at Epcot in their designated countries. If you’re anything but white and all American you have no choice but to be pigeon toed as just another “character” at Disney World, and I’m glad this guy is at least making an effort to fight instead of just tolerating it for the sake of “show.” I know some think that “the show” is what makes Disney World work, but when it boils down to stuff like this, it’s not just show anymore. You’re talking about a persons beliefs, their heritage and their identity…this isn’t just a mohawk or a tatoo….what Disney is asking him to do is not to conform to a “show”…they’re saying he can’t even be a part of it unless he turns his back on who he is as a person and becomes who they want him to be. That is the definition of discrimination.

  5. Disney Employee says:

    Here is some helpful information that you might not know. Sukhbir Channa (the guy suing the rat) was hired for the position and said he could wear a read turban instead of a red beret. After a month of rehearsals his manager said in front of the entire cast of 48 people, that “Sukhbir will not be performing because of his look PROBLEM.” If you can’t see whats wrong with this then you need to wake up.

  6. Vallen says:

    Well, if in fact what “Disney Employee” says is true, and I never trust the word of the anonyamous internet, then Disney has a major problem. That’s both offensive and really stupid.

    For the record, I said EITHER he’s just seeking money or he’s an idiot. Not both and that’s not calling him an idiot outright.

    Disney look policy may suck but is in fact legal because of the title of “cast member”. It’s a legal title that means Disney can determine your look and costume, just like if you were in a play on broadway. Actors sign the same agreements when they take on a role. When you are hired you sign a contract saying you understand this and will abide by it. If you don’t like it then work for someone else.

    And no I don’t think this policy discriminates or is wrong. They aren’t refusing to hire you because of your religion. They just ask that you live by the same rules they ask of everyone else. If you don’t like it then don’t take the job.

    And yes the dress code policy IS set in stone. Just because one manager was more lenient or another went overboard doesn’t mean the COMPANY wavers from location to location. Don’t confuse the company with your idiot boss.

  7. Steve says:

    Hey, the idiot bosses make up the company just as much as the cast members do, and if there’s no consistency within the management, then how can they expect real consistency with the look of their cast members? If Disney hired the guy, and then let him perform knowing he had certain Disney look issues, and then later decided to do something about it….that’s a problem with the company, not with the person. That says the dress code policy is not set in stone, that says the dress code policy is determined by individual preferences (of the managers), and individual preferences can easily be influenced by prejudices. On the same note individual preferences can also be skewed to be seen as prejudices when they really aren’t, but that’s the double edge sword Disney is going to have to deal with because of these very inconsistencies.

    And I don’t know a whole lot about corporate law, but it sounds a bit flaky to say that “cast member” can be used as a legal title, because as I understand if someone is fired over a “look” issue at any company the company is liable to prove that the person in question was unable to perform his or her job based on the issue in question. And I find it hard to believe that wearing a turban and having a beard would effect his ability to play an instrument. It’s doubtful that enough people complained or stood there and pointed at the guy for Disney to prove that it was hurting their bottom line either. Disney is looking out for Disney as a company like they always do, but not as the people friendly place they claim to be. It makes no sense to prohibit an ethnic “look” like this guy has, considering they’ll let anyone in the park, the diversity they claim to have within the parks, let alone the ethnicities they portray on film. I understand they have standards that they like to uphold, but it’s time for those standards to be revamped again because they cannot continue to be the smiling white all American “show” in a culture as diverse as ours.

    “Cast member” “Disney look” “on stage” it’s all BS used to create a culture for the employees so they buy into Disney’s system. They shouldn’t be able to use it to push a person out of that system if they still cling to their own beliefs.

  8. Bek says:

    When you apply for Disney you are informed of the Disney Look guidelines. It is all a part of the magic. Disney wants everyone to have a classic look. As a cast member you learn to adapt to the guidelines. Disney also tries to place you in a location that will work best for you.

  9. Fed Up! says:

    If this guy can sue Disney over not being able to wear a hat then I should be able to sue Abercrombie for not hiring me as a short, chubby model. I say Disney should keep thier policy and keep doing what works best for them. Disney was built as a make-believe for profit business which is what keeps it successful. OF COURSE they are going to keep that atmosphere. People, it is a business built on the American dream. He needs to get a dream of his own that doesn’t involve sueing over the ability to wear a hat. If his turban is an issue, he should be transferred to an area that would allow him to wear it. If he doesn’t want to tranfer QUIT!

  10. Anonymous says:

    I also worked with Suk. The way disney hires it’s seasonal musicians in Florida is they go to the local colleges, UCF, USF, UM, UF, Rollins College, FAMU, FSU and have an open audition. The musicians they hire perform in two capacities: atmosphere sets and performing in Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Parade. Suk was hired in 2005, and was assured that is he could perform with his beard and a red Turban to match the costume in the atmosphere set and would be wearing a toy soldier head in the parade. We rehearsed five weekends before opening for the public. It was before the first performance that he was told he would not be aloud to perform in the atmosphere sets  because he did not conform to “the disney look”, however, he was aloud to perform in the parade because he wore a toy soldier costume. He made a complaint to human resources and was told he was never hired for the atmospheric position and no corrective action was ever taken. Because he was not performing in the atmosphere sets, he sometimes had to do menial tasks for our supervisor. When the 2006 season came around he was denied reemployment because of “the look” when 99% of us were rehired. The whole situation was completely unfair to him. He was assured his religious views would be respected and he would be allowed to perform. Disney broke that promise.

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