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Disney's Dress Code vs. Religious Freedom

October 3, 2010
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Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Policies and Procedures, Workforce Planning
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The Walt Disney Co. is locked in a high-profile dispute with an employee who claims the entertainment giant is restricting her right to practice her religion.

Imane Boudlal, 26, a hostess at the Storyteller’s Cafe in Disneyland’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, says Disney is discriminating against her by forbidding her to wear the head scarf that her Muslim faith compels her to don. She filed a religious discrimination complaint August 18 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Interestingly, Boudlal began her job at the theme park two years ago and in June asked to wear a hijab, or head scarf, to work—a request her supervisors denied. Disney directed its costume shop to design a special hijab-incorporating hat for Boudlal’s costume (all “onstage” Disney theme park employees who face the public are called cast members, and their uniforms are called costumes), but she reportedly felt that the hat-and-scarf accessory was inappropriate and embarrassing.

Boudlal then wore her non-Disney-approved hijab to work several times and was removed from the work schedule. Disney decided to fight it rather than depart from its long-standing policy requiring cast members to appear in regulation costumes onstage. That policy, known as the “Disney Look,” defines everything from the size of a cast member’s earrings to pantyhose.

The Disney case calls to mind another lawsuit that pitted Costco Wholesale Corp. against an employee whose numerous body piercings violated the company’s appearance policy five years ago. That case, in which the employee with multiple piercings claimed religious exemption from the appearance policy by virtue of her membership in the Church of Body Modification, was decided in Costco’s favor, though it lasted four years and cost $2 million in legal fees.

These cases raise the question: What is an employer’s obligation to support its employees’ desire to express their religious beliefs through dress and physical appearance?

Boudlal’s quarrel with Disney has one twist that keeps religious-freedom and human resources pundits chattering. She worked at her job for two years without complaint, wearing the standard costume to work every shift. Boudlal says she experienced an awakening of her faith and realized that her beliefs required her to cover her head on the job.

As an advocate for inclusion at work and an even bigger advocate for rational and consistent policymaking, I’ve got to side with Disney on this one.

Were Disney theme parks not as well-established in their culture and rules for employee/cast member appearance, I might be more sympathetic to Boudlal’s cause. But I have to ask: Why work at one of the country’s (if not the world’s) most steadfastly consistent employers in the “This is how we dress here” arena if the dress code doesn’t conform with your beliefs?

The law requires that employers accommodate employees’ religious obligations up to the point where that accommodation interferes with the employer’s ability to conduct business. I can’t see how Disney could have been clearer in articulating its requirements for employee costuming over many years or imagine an accommodation beyond the two already offered (besides the failed hat-plus-hijab experiment, Disney also offered her a backstage job without customer contact, which she refused). The company, after all, is in the entertainment business.

I see Disney between a rock and a hard place in this case, guessing that its leaders would have liked nothing better than for the whole thing to be amicably resolved and avoid sparking a national discussion about religious tolerance and the changing workforce. At the same time, I can only imagine the flurry of special-costuming requests had Disney agreed to her petition.

I’ll be watching the case with interest, as its implications may have big consequences for HR leaders in 2011 and beyond.

 

Workforce Management Online, September 2010 -- Register Now!

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