Former Employee Sues Disneyland Over Religious Discrimination

It’s a problem that began back in 2010 in the heat of a long running labor dispute and has been a black eye for Disney in an area where they are usually known for their excellence. Disney’s parks have prided themselves on diversity in every sense of the word since the early 80s. It’s been a key part of the park’s strength – recruiting top candidates and rewarding them with the ability to work amongst a diverse group of cast members.

But there was one area where the parks were lagging – personal appearances. Because the parks and resorts are thought of as part of a show and cast members aren’t just employees, but they play a role, a large emphasis was placed on looking the part. Usually, that only went as far as wearing the appropriate costume and grooming standards, but sometimes went as far as requiring a specific gender as host or hostess on an attraction.

Over the last decade or so, Disney has been lowering the standards used for appearance. They’ve developed more generic costumes so one employee can work in two lands or three or four attractions without changing outfits. This has helped the park become more efficient at cost to the ‘show’ of the park. They’ve also had to relax facial hair and hair coloring restrictions so they could get more qualified candidates to apply and then remain with the company. Exceptions, as they say, were made.

So when a cast member came to Disney requesting to wear a traditional headscarf as part of her religion, Disney was already primed to make some accommodation for religious beliefs. Now, as we mentioned at the lead, there were some extenuating circumstances at the time. The cast member had not made this request at her time of hiring and was only now making the request, and it could have been part of a labor action against the park. Regardless, Disney worked it out internally and made her an offer of a head covering that fit Disney’s costume standards or the option of working off-stage where a traditional head scarf wouldn’t be out of place.

Since that time in August 2010, I’ve seen at least a dozen Disney World employees with on stage roles wearing Muslim-style headscarves as part of their costumes. Doesn’t bother me a bit, but the first couple times I saw it, I’d admit I did do a double-take. Mostly because it is an exception to the costuming rule, the same way maternity costumes look different, but then you get used to them.

I hadn’t given the original complaint a second thought until, we learn today that Imane Boudlal, formerly employed at Disneyland, has filed a lawsuit against the resort claiming she was harassed and unfairly forced from her job after the dispute over her head scarf. Disney, for its part, claims to have made multiple accommodations for Boudlal, but otherwise won’t comment on the pending litigation. An initial panel has found there is enough evidence for the case to proceed. The LA Times has more details.

This will be an interesting lawsuit to watch. I can see both sides of the equation. Boudlal wants her right to not be discriminated against at her place of work and Disney believes it made more than reasonable accommodations so she would not be. I have a hard time believing some of her complaints, that Disney took no action when she complained of being harassed for one. I know Disney has a very strict no tolerance policy for harassment in place. I also find her decision to not accept Disney’s offers to work off-stage or wear an approved head scarf odd. But then I don’t know enough about her personal beliefs to make that call. How much of an impact did her participation in labor actions at the time affect Disney management’s decision to help or not help her? Legally, I think Disney went far enough, but did they really do all they could for this employee who wanted a career in hospitality and thought she had found a great start with Disney?