The Walt Disney Company: Reinforcing Culture and Values to Employees

The Walt Disney Company: Reinforcing Culture and Values to Employees

Across Its Global Footprint

Group #4: Stacy Cacciatore, Sarah McClanahan, and Wendi Muhonen

Queens University of Charlotte




The Walt Disney Company is a transnational entertainment company with five business segments, including media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment,consumer products and interactive media (The Walt Disney Company, 2014). The Walt Disney Company started in 1923 as a humble cartoon studio and has grown to an international media conglomerate with operations in more than 40 countries and approximately 166,000 employees (Global Footprint, n.d.). The Walt Disney Company’s objective is to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products. The company’s primary financial goals are to maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value (The Walt Disney Company, n.d.).


Using the organizational culture communication theory as a framework, this analysis will focus on how The Walt Disney Company creates an organizational culture based on their mission, values and beliefs. The Walt Disney Company declares that their values; innovation, quality, community, storytelling, optimism and decency, are present in everything they do and help create the unified vision for their workforce (Disney Careers, n.d.). The scope of the analysis will extend to the evaluation of how The Walt Disney Company instills their values in employees across the globe through their hiring practices. The structure of this analysis will include an analytical literature review, which will include an analysis of the organizational culture comunications theory, Disney’s background, mission and management philosohy, international program, recruitment policy, entertainment landcape, organizational values and training.


Analytical Literature Review

Theoretical Framework

Organizational culture theory will serve as the framework to understand

The Walt Disney Company’s operations. This theory proposes that organizational culture – the shared vision, values, symbols, language, beliefs, and habits – emanates through history. As time progresses, the shared vision and values are socialized to the company’s new employees by more senior members. The process of passing down the company’s vision and beifes over time results in the development of the company’s priorities and guides its decision-making (Denison, 1996). According to Bloor and Dawson, (1994) “organizational culture is historically and socially constructed, holistic, and difficult to change” (p. 275). Given that an organizatinal culture is historially created and difficult to change, it’s important that the senior leaders of the company understand and emmulate the vision, mission and values of the company. Ravasi and Schultz (2006) say that organizational culture helps employees with sensemaking in their environment. The messaging, delivered by an organization, also gives a sense of purpose to members and energizes them. They also found that providing organizational members with a clear and consistent narrative helps them attach meaning to events, issues and their work.


Organizational culture theory has roots in anthropology and sociology. Anthropologists and sociologists added to the enormous body of literature on culture by conducting research dealing directly with customs and traditions of work organizations during the 1950s (Hatch, 1993). Contemporary research and organized theory dealing with organizational culture emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s as scholars and business practitioners studied Japanese organizational effectiveness, management techniques, and exceptional economic prowess (Brannan & Kleinberg, 2000). Originally termed “organizational climate”, early scholarly works on organizational culture “were often presented as panaceas for North American firms’ failing productivity” (p. 388). Climate, in this context, is the acquired competence of an individual to interpret the demands of an organization, and make sense of his or her ongoing interactions with the organization and its members (Allaire & Firsirotu, 1984).


One popular model of organizational culture theory is Schein’s model. According to Schein, as cited in Hatch, (1993) culture exists on three levels: (a) artifacts, (b) values, and (c) assumptions. Assumptions represent the bottom, foundational tier, and refer to the taken-for-granted beliefs. Values are “social principles, philosophies, goals, and standards” with “intrinsic worth” (p. 659). The cultural dynamics model extends Schein’s work, and proposes “a more complex, process-based understanding of organizational culture” (p. 661). Understanding cultural dynamics is relevant to fully comprehending organizational culture theory. A common criticism of organizational culture theory is that it views culture as static and behavior as consistent among all members of an organization (Brannen & Kleinberg, 2000). Another perceived limitation of organizational culture theory is a simplistic, parochial view of culture with a lack of attention to subcultures. Bloor and Dawson (1994) argue that a homogenous organizational culture is the exception rather than the rule, and distinct subcultures develop within organizations. Despite these limitations, organizational culture theory provides a pragmatic framework for examining The Walt Disney Company and its global operations.

The Walt Disney Company has a clear mission and vision that they use

to energize their workforce. There are a number of complex, multi-dimensional components that affect the success of a global business, but the organizational culture is a significant contributing

factor. A study on “The Best Places to Work” by Levering and Mokowitz

(2010) found that the top CEOs felt that 50 percent of an organization’s success is due to their organizational culture (as cited in Sriramesh & Vercic, 2003). This reinforces the importance of an organization, such as The Walt Disney Company, to instill their mission and values among employees across the globe.


The Walt Disney Company’s Background, Mission, and Management Philosophy

            The Walt Disney Company is a global company with U.S. headquarters. They have international investments, including Tele-München in Germany, Hamster Productions in France and Scandinavian Broadcasting System in Luxembour and Eurosport in England (The Walt Disney Company, n.d.). The current Chief Executive Officer is Bob Iger (Jurevicius, 2013). In 2013, they brought in $45.0 billion in revenue (Business Week, 2014).

The Walt Disney Company acquired ABC in 1996, making the Disney-ABC Television Group composed of Disney and ABC television programming. The Cable and International Broadcast Group, which is part of ABC, also includes ESPN, A&E Television and Lifetime (The Walt Disney Company, n.d.). Disney’s media networks also include Lifetime, Hyperion Books, The History Channel, and A&E (The Walt Disney Company, n.d.). Disney has built 45 resorts and 12 theme parks including Tokyo Disney Resort in 1983, Tokyo DisneySea in 2001, and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort in 2005 (The Walt Disney Company, n.d.)

The ABC Entertainment Group reaches 23 percent of U.S. television households and develops programming for both national and international broadcast and national syndication. ABC studios has many hit shows that are syndicated nationally, including Modern Family, The Middle and Scandal. ABC News includes World News Tonight with David Muir, The View, Nightline, Good Morning America, and 20/20 (ABC Shows, n.d.).

The Walt Disney Company uses a centralized casting team to ensure that not only the recruitment of key talent is consistent across the globe, but also to ensure that the company’s core values are clearly communicated and embodied by employees, no matter where they are located. Total quality management (TQM) is a value-based management philosophy based on a set of core values. Ingelsson, Eriksson, and Lilja (2012) discuss the link between TQM and emphasizing core values to all employees within an organization. The researchers set out to evaluate how an organization can ensure employees share the same core values, which leads to homogeneity and desirable behaviors.

Ingelsson, Eriksson, and Lilja (2012) conducted a case study at Walt Disney World in 2006 on TQM and how they achieve common values and a strong organizational culture. One area that Disney focused on was the recruitment process. Disney focuses on values, behavior and beliefs throughout the process of selecting the right candidate. Disney does not simply hire employees they employ cast members to play a role in their company. They recruit cast members who reflect the “right” values of the organization. Disney relies upon casting to review all applicants and ensure that they embody the company’s value and culture rather than leaving this up to the managers. This process ensures that all candidates receive clear and consistent information. Disney also focuses on retention. Disney realizes that losing talent is detrimental to the organization, so they work on keeping employees by knowing employees know that they care about them through appreciation, activities and benefits.

Ingelsson, Eriksson, and Lilja (2012) found that the most important component to total quality management and ensuring that employees are engaged in the corporate culture and values is not through communicating the core values to employees who are already employed, but through selecting the right candidates from the onset. Since values are difficult to change, ensuring that the employee embodies the company’s values from the onset is critical.

Many believe that The Walt Disney Company’s success for over fifty years and their outstanding traction in attracting and retaining talent is due to their communication of their key values and organizational culture. These casting centers are not only important to embedding the Disney culture in new cast members, but also the casting center sets the tone for the cast member’s experience. Eisner hired prominent architect, Robert Stern, to design the casting center where The Walt Disney Company hires and trains new employees (Stewart, 2005). From the moment cast members enter the casting center and see the Mickey Mouse ear-shaped archways, turn the Alice In Wonderland doorknobs and walk across the “Bridge of Sighs” (Sampson, 2006, para 10), they know they are a part of the story and world of Disney. The attention to detail in the casting center demonstrates the commitment to instill one of Disney’s most important values, storytelling, from the moment the cast member enters the door. Their casting center also reinforces their values on quality and innovation.

The Walt Disney Company prides themselves on their guest service, commitment to employees, and strong values. At The Disney Institute, they say, “At Disney, leadership is not defined by your title – it’s defined by your actions. Our leaders proactively work to align their values with the Company’s vision and the result is a motivated, innovative, and productive workforce” (Leadership Excellence, n.d, para 1). One of the ways that The Walt Disney Company does this is by communicating their values to their employees across the globe from the moment they begin, through Disney University.

The Disney University, founded by Van France in 1955, helps train cast members to create the world-famous Disney Magic (Lipp, 2013). Disney University follows the advice of Walt Disney who said, “Disneyland is the star, everything else is in the supporting role” (p. 3). The goal of Disney University is to get all new cast members on board with the Disney vision and values of the company. Van France famously said, “What happens ‘backstage’ will end up ‘on-stage’ (as cited in Lipp, 2013, p.5). The commitment to the Disney value, storytelling, is embedded in their vernacular. By calling an employee a cast member, they reinforce that every employee is playing a role in the larger production. The Walt Disney Company’s language centers on the guest instead of customer, again, because Disney is about the production. Disney cast members also call backstage any area that is for employees only and front stage is a public guest area. Their vernacular reinforces their corporate culture, which is centered on the guest.


The Walt Disney Company’s International Program

The Walt Disney Company values diversity and they believe that a diverse workforce is critical to their business (Culture & Diversity, n.d.). One can see this through Disney’s International Program that employs cast members from across the globe. The Disney International Program provides an opportunity for individuals to learn about The Walt Disney Company culture and way of doing things, while connecting with others around the world. According to the Disney Careers website:

As part of Disney International Programs, you’ll experience a once-in-a-lifetime     opportunity to learn from one of the world’s most innovative entertainment companies.       Living and working at Walt Disney World® Resort allows you to connect with people      from across the globe, create lifelong memories and be immersed in an English-speaking    environment. You’ll also gain valuable leadership, presentation and customer service          skills – all things that Disney is known for worldwide” (Disney International Programs,             n.d.).

The Walt Disney Company’s International Program demonstrates their commitment to a global workforce. Disney has built an entire program around creating a diverse workforce. One can see through the mission statement of Disney, that the International Program encourages both the growth of Disney’s sharing of their corporate culture with employees across the globe. Through having international employees gather in one location, in an “English-speaking environment”, Disney ensures that all employees, regardless of their location, are immersed in the Disney culture.

The Walt Disney Company’s expansion into international markets can be tracked back to Eisner, chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005. Eisner did not know much about the global business of Disney, but that did not stop Eisner’s goal to expand internationally. Eisner admits that when he first joined the company and met an employee who said she worked at “BVI”, he said, “I didn’t know Disney owned an underwear company.” She laughed and said, “No, BVI is Buena Vista International” (Stewart, 2005, p.21). Eisner had plans for an entirely new theme park in Europe. Prior to Eisner coming on board Disney had opened a theme park in Tokyo. Eisner wanted to open a park in France because he saw France as the pinnacle of Western culture and the antithesis for American mass culture, which ironically Disney represented. Eisner announced Euro Disney in 1985.

Internationally, The Walt Disney Company has become woven into the cultures of numerous nations due to its commitments to innovation and the cultivation of happiness. The Walt Disney Company’s global reach is evident when the majority of 1,250 survey respondents in 18 countries recognized the brand, confirmed a high degree of interaction with its products, and agreed on its key values (Wasko, Phillips, & Meehan, 2001). Throughout the years, The Walt Disney Company has proven it can adapt to challenges in the marketplace to remain a viable global entertainment option. In terms of content delivery, Disney’s ABC station was the first television network to make its programs available for download through iTunes (“Disney/ABC Television Group,” 2010). Moreover, Disney has pleased foreign audiences by glocalizing its theme parks, adding touches of local flare while still keeping Disney’s corporate philosophy intact. At Hong Kong Disneyland, for example, executives organized the park’s design based on the Chinese concept of feng shui, included traditional Chinese cuisine in the park’s restaurants, hired cast members that spoke English, as well as local dialects, and refrained from requiring employees to continuously smile as an overly friendly demeanor draws suspicion in the Chinese culture (Matusitz, 2011). By identifying and filling in the gaps in the marketplace, Disney stays one step ahead of its competition and earns global approval.

Due to The Walt Disney Company’s values, they were able to develop great affinity with Australian families and audiences. Disney’s values of trust, decency, optimism and quality resonated with Australian audiences. Disney recruited new positions in their Melbourne office and Lygopoulos, the Vice President of Human Resources for the company’s Asia Pacific regional office, says Disney wants staff that can engage with the brand, customers and other employees (Wilson, 2008).


The Walt Disney Company’s Recruitment Policy

            The Walt Disney Company ensures that they reinforce their culture by recruiting and retaining employees who embody their core values. Ensuring that employees embody Disney’s values is much more effective than trying to instill their values in employees who inherently don’t believe in them. Through actively recruiting key talent across the globe, reinforcing the cultural norm through leadership and embracing diversity, Disney has a strong team that embodies their culture.

The Walt Disney Company certainly does not have challenges when it comes to recruiting top talent. Disney is one of the top 15 MBA employers and it is a globally admired company (Wong, 2012). Disney looks for innovators who are creative, eager and communicate well across the globe. Disney is valued globally, and they are honing in on the growth opportunities in Asia. A $4.4 billion theme park and resort is planned to open in Shanghai in 2016. This opens the door for employment opportunities in China.


The Walt Disney Company’s Entertainment Landscape

In the United States where the brand originated, The Walt Disney Company is an omnipresent feature of the entertainment landscape due to its enduring, positive organizational culture that permeates all of its commodities. Brockus (2004) and Padilla-Walker, Coyne, Fraser, and Stockdale (2013) agree that its wholesome films instill the company’s central value of decency into viewers. Not only are The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs entertaining movies, but they also teach caring behavior including helping, sharing, and comforting others. Additionally, Brockus (2004) notes that Disney fulfills its mission of making individuals happy by producing products that serve a dual purpose in America as memory makers and memory takers. New memories are made with each visit to a Disney theme park, and old memories of classic stories are taken and edited with Disney’s film versions. Taken together, Disney’s consistently virtuous products likely influence employee’s behavior, as they are working for a company with high ethical standards and a positive image globally.


The Walt Disney Company’s Organizational Values

The Walt Disney Company’s employees worldwide contribute to the brand’s success through the values socialized into them by the company that these workers later transmit to all the individuals that they encounter on the job. Aligning with Disney’s ultimate goal to foster happiness, Maanen (1990) confirms that Disney is a business of selling a magical and personal experience, and it is the duty of the employees to ensure that this goal is achieved by making each person feel special. Accordingly, he states that cast members are taught to treat each attendee as a valued and unique guest as opposed to an impersonal consumer. When employees are on stage, or in front of the public, they should always appear cheerful and eager to serve the needs of their customers. Employees who act bored, rude, or insincere to guests could detract from the experience and undermine the entire The Walt Disney Company’s enterprise. Yet, despite these demands, Maanen concludes that the combination of corporate imagery, a social recruiting and selection process, and the goodwill trainees have toward the organization render most employees satisfied with their jobs. With satisfied employees that readily integrate into Disney’s organizational culture, the company is well equipped to deliver happiness to guests.

Although The Walt Disney Company attempts to promote universally appealing values to guests as a part of its organizational culture, citizens from certain countries are critical of its global reach. Wasko, Phillips, and Meehan (2001) and Fung and Lee (2009) agree that Disney’s expansion overseas can be viewed as imperialistic because the brand tends to promote Western ideals at the expense of the local culture. Disneyland Paris serves as an example of Americanization coupled with the marginalization of French culture because Disney extended its ban of alcohol sales to this park despite the French tradition of having a glass of wine with a meal (Wasko, Phillips, & Meehan, 2001). Additionally, before the more inclusive changes were introduced at the park, Hong Kong Disneyland was depicted as exploiting Chinese culture because it profited from selling dim sum in the shape of Mickey Mouse and traditional robes embellished with a variety of Disney characters (Fung and Lee, 2009). To a certain extent, Disney’s unwavering promotion of its values throughout all countries regardless of their cultural practices may be seen as disrespectful and ultimately could negatively affect its international success.

According to Hightower, (1993) leaders within The Walt Disney Company acknowledge that creativity is at the heart of their business and that “a continual flow of inspiration and encouragement, of training and guidance, is the basis for success” (p. 56). Nevertheless, the responsibility of fostering creativity is not an opportunity always available to employees. Walt Disney, although a visionary and creative genius, maintained tight control of the creative process during his lifetime. Upon Walt Disney’s passing in 1966, “the company floundered creatively and financially for years” (p. 54). As it turns out, employees became accustomed to “working under an autocratic visionary; they expected big ideas and decisions to come from the top” (p. 54). When Michael Eisner became CEO of Disney, he introduced brainstorming sessions and empowered employees. This sense of empowerment and a culture that not only values creativity, but also expects it, transformed the attitude among Disney’s cast members around the world. Disney’s management “nurtures and cultivates” (p. 55) creativity making it attractive to creative job seekers. Nevertheless, creativity alone is not the key to success. Disney also stresses synergy and quality, and constantly watches for opportunities and resources to incorporate these into the workforce, processes, and culture.

Training and Satisfaction Levels for The Walt Disney Company’s Employees


            Aside from The Walt Disney Company’s core values; innovation, quality, community, storytelling, optimism and decency, one must delve even deeper into Disney culture to understand what motivates employees to strive for the level of service that provides a uniquely “Disney” experience when people visit one of the theme parks, retail stores, or watch one of the movies. Kelly (2000) says, “Work at Disney has always baffled scholars because despite the low pay and tight supervision, its parks have consistently attracted a seemingly pliant, able, and affable workforce” ( p. 442). In fact, approximately 10,000 of the 12,000 employees at Tokyo Disneyland are part time workers. According to Raz, as cited in Kelly, (2000) one key to maintaining a happy and engaged workforce is a program of rigorous training and socializing, even for part time employees. The training includes in-depth training manuals as well as training in emotion management. This emotion management training helps Disney employees overcome negativity to maintain a positive demeanor when dealing with customers or park visitors. Cast members at Tokyo Disney in particular do not seem bothered by the expectation to suppress emotions at work, and scholars link this to the “Japanese predisposition to accept front/back distinctions” (p. 442).

Research on human resources in the entertainment industry provides another lens through which one can examine employee satisfaction at The Walt Disney Company. In fact, many case studies use Disney as their subject, making it a global and industry model. According to Mayer, as cited in Nguyen and Kleiner, (2005) four primary human resource strategies help media corporations deliver superior quality: (a) hire the right people, (b) develop people to deliver service quality, (c) provide necessary support systems, and (d) retain the best people. For example, Disney conducts auditions rather than job interviews, and refers to potential candidates as cast members. Moreover, candidates watch a short video early in the interview process to introduce cast members to Disney’s culture and values as well as to level-set expectations. The purpose is to “convey expectations to potential employees in a consistent manner” (p. 101). The next step is to identify an individual’s passions and interests, and match him or her to the right position. This helps ensure a high level of satisfaction and engagement.

Once in the role, employees remain satisfied because of attractive benefits like free park admissions, discounts on merchandise, and a competitive benefits plan (Nguyen & Kleiner, 2005). For example, all employees, even those who do not deal directly with customers, participate in customer service training “because the company believes that employees must be responsible for service and courtesy at all levels” (p. 103). Moreover, employees receive comprehensive training and advancement opportunities for internal candidates.

According to Hightower, (1993) “creative people want to work for Disney” (p. 55). An important part of fostering creativity is empowering employees and providing support systems. According to Zeithaml and Bitner, as cited in Nguyen and Kleiner, (2005) “effective empowerment strategies often lead to happy, motivated employees” (p. 104). Empowerment is a driving force at The Walt Disney Company. Finally, Disney offers feedback, support, and resources to help employees do their jobs well and feel engaged in the process.


Since it was initially founded, the Walt Disney Company has maintained a high level of appeal for fans that span multiple generations. Its domestic and international success seems to correlate with its ability to adhere to its vision and to promote its core values through its employees and all of its products. The Walt Disney Company has a strong corporate culture that is reinforced through recruiting key talent with similar values, reinforcing core values through Disney University and creating a Disney casting center that reflects their core values of innovation, quality, community, storytelling, optimism and decency. The Walt Disney Company has locations across the globe, but they use a central casting center to ensure that all employees receive clear and consistent information about the Disney culture and values. The gaps in the research are global in nature. While much research has been done on Disney’s domestic culture in the United States, not much has been published on Disney’s efforts to ensure that their organizational culture and values are reinforced internationally. Additionally, although Disney has a strong organizational culture that expands across the globe, current research does not reflect whether Disney considers the culture of their employees in conjunction with the organizational culture. Disney also describes their international program as the ability to “create lifelong memories and be immersed in an English-speaking environment” (Disney International Programs, n.d., para 1). Given that they emphasize the English-speaking environment, this is an American focused point of view. Additional research needs to be conducted on how Disney operates in non-English speaking countries. However, even with the gaps in research on international-specific communications strategies for communicating the vision, mission, and culture, it is clear that Disney reinforces their organizational culture to employees across the globe, resulting in an engaged workforce.



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