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Not quite the happiest place on Earth: Why Disneyland, Sports Direct and other big brands are failing on company culture

Disneyland may be coined the happiest place on Earth, but employees beg to differ. Praseeda Nair & Letitia Booty explore how Disneyland and other big brands are failing on company culture and what that means for the bottom line.
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A lot of small business owners might have dreams of what they want the look and feel of their business to become, but these businesses are proof that big bucks doesn’t always mean a perfect company culture.

For instance, who would have thought Caffe Nero, JD Sport and Holland & Barrett would be lumped in with the likes of notorious Sports Direct and Uber, known for toxic practices? Based on employee reviews on Glassdoor.co.uk, even big household brands have paid employees late, stripped them of a healthy work/life balance, and worse!

According to research from SME HR software provider breatheHR, the cost of bad company culture could reach a staggering £23.6 billion per year. One in three British workers would easily quit their jobs when this need is not being met.

Clearly, getting the company culture right is important if you want to retain top talent, and over the course of our SME Culture Leaders series we’ll look at companies that are getting it right and how.

However, it’s just as important to learn what not to do, so you don’t have a crippling staff turnover on your hands. As the following examples prove, nobody is immune from making company culture mistakes.

Disneyland

This year a survey of Disneyland resort employees (Working for the Mouse), reported that 73% of workers say that they do not earn enough money to cover basic expenses every month. Furthermore, 11% of Disneyland Resort employees report having been homeless, or not having their own place, in the past two years.

In each year from 2015 to 2017, the pay received by Disney CEO Robert Iger was larger than the total pay of more than 2,000 Disneyland workers.

Reviews from Disney employees on Glassdoor suggest that career progression is pretty much nonexistent at the House of Mouse. One employee wrote: “Career advancement is nearly impossible unless someone in a position that you want leaves the company, and even then the position is most likely going to be filled from outside the company. I’ve actually had managers tell me that the only way to advance is to leave the company and then hope to be hired back at a higher level.”

On a darker note, of the 195,000 Disney employees around the world, many have faced alleged abuses and scandals. This includes two employee suicides in Paris Disneyland in 2010.

One was 37-year-old father of four Franck L., who wrote “Je ne veux pas retourner chez Mickey” (I don’t want to return to Mickey’s) on the wall of his home. The other incident saw an employee kill himself by jumping in front of a train.

But these tragic incidents revealed a deeper problem within the organisation. At Paris Disneyland, a change in management also saw a sharp decline in working conditions.

Jobs were slashed, and at the same time the entry price was visitors was reduced; the combination of more park guests and few employees led to a work environment that was both stressful and dangerous.

According to the Independent, “The number of industrial accidents on the site has risen to 1,500 a year – one for every 10 employees.”

As recently as of March last year, Disney was slapped with a $3.8 million labour violation because the company mandated that all employees in the US sites needed to buy their own costumes. This pushed their wages down well below the American federal minimum wage. So much for Disneyland being the happiest place on earth!

Sports Direct

The Guardian exposed poor working practises at Sports Direct back in 2015. It reported that staff were put through searches at the end of shifts and were not paid for the extra time, while being even one minute late could result in deductions from their pay.

More shockingly, officials in the workers’ union told MPs that in one case an employee had given birth in a toilet at the company’s warehouse in Derbyshire, because she feared she’d get fired for taking the day off.

“Low pay, agency work contracts, named and shamed by your bosses for ‘not working hard enough’ and body searches after every shift! These are just some of the harsh working conditions thousands of workers at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse face every day,” a union member said, petitioning to stop Sports Direct’s ‘shameful practices’.

Amid the stink of these reports, allegations that some employees were promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours began to crop up in 2016.

Committee chairman Iain Wright said evidence heard by MPs back in 2016 suggested Sports Direct’s working practices “are closer to that of a Victorian workhouse than that of a modern, reputable high street retailer”.

In 2017, Sports Direct revealed falling sales at its core UK stores and a dive in profits. The company says this is partly caused by the declining value of the pound, but its appalling company culture reveals a lot more about its bottom line.

Topshop, Dorothy Perkins et al

Clothing retailers Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and a host of other high street names sit within the Arcadia Group, chaired by Philip Green. It employs over 10,000 people and operates more than 2,540 company-owned stores across the UK, but it’s not all good news for the legion of employees that work in these stores. The group scored a collective 2.6 on 5 on Glassdoor.

Employees at the firm may receive a 25% staff discount but cite a lack of pay rises and career stagnation as top gripes.

One employee, empowered by the anonymity Glassdoor.co.uk provides wrote that working at the Arcadia Group meant “job security is a thing of the past”.

Uber

Early last year, a blog post from a former Uber employee, Susan Fowler, raised a lot of issues about the company culture at gig-economy mainstay. She wrote about sexual harassment and a “game-of-thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management in the infrastructure engineering organisation”.

Uber was making headlines and in the wake of the accusations, founder Travis Kalanick stepped down. An email sent to Uber employees announcing the new CEO said the board and executive leadership team were confident that he will be the best person to add “value to the lives of drivers and riders around the world while continuously improving our culture and making Uber the best place to work.”

In an interview with CNBC, current Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi admitted that the “moral compass of the company” was not pointing in the right direction all this while.

Debenhams

Debenhams scored a marginal 2.8 on 5 on Glassdoor. However, negative reviews abound.

“‘Jobs for the boys’ is alive and well in Debenhams,” one former employee from Dunfermline, Scotland, wrote.

“It’s not about what you know, it’s who you know,” it continued, advising management to “listen to your experienced people. They do know what they’re talking about.”

Around 73 reviews echoed the same sentiment: “Poor pay for under 25,” while a further 49 said “I worked there for years and barely made it past minimum wage even after promotion”.

Debenhams was listed among 358 other businesses who were named and shamed last year when the government named and shamed a list of national minimum and living wage offenders.

Employers in hairdressing, hospitality and retail were the most prolific offenders in this regard, according to the report, which suggests that no sector is immune from the fall out of failing on company culture.

If your business has an amazing atmosphere, stellar perks and more, tell us all about it for a chance to feature on Real Business as an SME Culture Leader. Nominate your business now.

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