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Nordstrom's 75-word employee handbook (wikipedia.org)
200 points by j_baker on Oct 25, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments

This is how my college worked, and I think it's a fabulous idea that promotes personal responsibility rather than CYA bullshit. During orientation, all the incoming freshmen (~200) were herded into a lecture hall, and a panel of five upperclassmen pontificated on the significance and nuances of the phrase "don't be a jackass." And that was basically it. We could drink as much alcohol as we wanted, we were just expected not to get into fights, break other people's stuff, get sent to the hospital, or otherwise do things that we or someone else would regret. We could burn quite a wide variety of things, in bulk, so long as no one got hurt. We were given unrestricted 24-hour access to computer labs, chemistry equipment, etc. Most of my exams were take-home, and we were expected to adhere to the rules (time limit, closed-book) because that was the cost of the privilege. We could pull all sorts of pranks against others students and even faculty, so long as we left contact information and any effects were reversible within 24 hours. We were expected to be responsible adults, and were treated like responsible adults, so we acted like responsible adults (well, we acted responsibly anyways). We actually had less alcohol-related incidents (assaults, property damage, alcohol poisoning) than any nearby college, despite (read: because of) their having significantly more restrictive policies.

Like Nordstrom's, we did have to make a few concessions to the outside world, though they were few and far between. For example, we were not allowed to have bonfires that were taller than the dorms, because then women's college across the street thinks the school is on fire. The administration is totally fine with 50 mildly inebriated college students milling around an open flame in the middle of a dorm courtyard with no "adult" supervision, but they still don't like explaining it to the local fire department.

What college do you go to? I'm transferring this year and... inquiring minds want to know.

Sounds an awful lot like Harvey Mudd. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Mudd_College#The_HMC_hon...

To the grandparent: having grown up in Claremont, I can tell you that the reason Harvey Mudd has less problems with alcohol than the other Claremont colleges is almost completely a result of which students it accepts rather than its honor code.

Correct, I went to Harvey Mudd.

What you say certainly has some truth to it, and I am skeptical this policy would work for the population at large. However, the other colleges (especially Pomona) are also pretty selective in their admissions, and there is a significant overlap in student life between the various colleges. While Mudd's honor code may not work as well with other student populations, I also think that other regulatory systems would not work as well with that student population. For one thing, it's essentially a college of hackers (in the HN sense), so having a stricter or more explicit set of rules would probably result in "creative" ways of following the letter of the law, with less regards to the spirit.

Can you expand on what you mean? I can't imagine that either test scores or economic status is correlated with jack-assery, although I guess it's possible. If I were forming an experiment, in fact, my hypothesis would be that the latter is positively correlated (but I doubt it would pan out).

If you don't believe that economic status is correlated with jack-assery, go live in a low economic status neighborhood.

I do. And my neighbors are hard-working, decent people, despite not having large salaries and getting dirty at work.

I did however, grow up in an affluent neighborhood, and I seem to recall that some people there neither angels nor saints. Maybe about as many as in my current locale.

(Though I think the HMC honor code is fantastic, and I’m sure that it is part of the cause of student self-selection: a certain type of person is likely to apply to a school with such a culture.)

I was going to guess Caltech which has a very similar policy and culture as described. The only thing that didn't fit was the "women's college across the street".

Yep. Also I am compelled by ancient tradition to point out that Caltech's style and traditions are going down the tubes due to the shift from administration by faculty to administration by professional administrators. (Note that this has been the received wisdom for long enough that it can't possibly be quite as true as it's made out to be.)

Good post, thanks :)

I have a similar point to this relating to young children (under the age of 15 and over 5 I guess), allowing a child to have what they want, go where they like and do what they want (within reason), this gift of freedom seems to make the child mature faster or think/act differently.

For example a child given the opportunity to go out late at night before being old enough for nightclubs, who isn't worried about rules that say 'be home by X' or 'no alcohol!' is more likely to find what they enjoy naturally instead of breaking rules just to spite their parents.

Another example, given the option to drink fizzy drinks all day or water, a child doesn't take long to realize water is a better option most of the time.

Most of this is from first hand experience, I think these ideas rely on a reasonably smart child/parent and an open & trusting relationship. The parent must still provide direction on what is right/wrong and communicate ideas.


Which college did you go to? Going to college in Texas, I think even suggesting some of these ideas would have given my university's administrators a heart attack.

It sounds a good bit like Rice a decade ago actually. They're a bit more strict on the pranks ("jacks") these days, and some of the other things are becoming a little more restricted as the university gets larger, but it still mostly applies.

We actually had less alcohol-related incidents than any nearby college, despite their having significantly more restrictive policies

I'm not sure how that is a benefit and I think a lot of people are mistaking the absence of rules with the absence of authority. The easiest way to get compliant people is to threaten them with punishment but not tell them what the rules are. They had 5 other students explain the nuances, rather than someone with authority because that way, they could still punish you for what those students told you was OK.

It's essentially an open door for exertion of arbitrary power, but dressed up so the people welcome it as freedom. Imagine if traffic laws were "use your own judgment" - no speeding signs, but the cops could still pull you over on a whim and ticket you for speeding. And you couldn't go to court to contest it because there are no rules, and we'd all be driving a whole lot slower. But at least we're being treated like responsible adults, right?

While you are correct that Orwellian dictatorships are also well-served by not havinv explicit rules, having lived in this particular environment, I think your analysis is wrong. What happened was not that people were kept in line by fear of punishment. What happened was that people had regard for the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. If you ever caught yourself wondering if you were running afoul of the honor code, the internal monologue was not framed in terms of "will I get punished," but rather "am I harming others."

Also, to counter another point: the administrators did not actually have the authority to punish students. The disciplinary board was student-run, and while I was not a part of that process, I am under the impression that the administration was pretty hands-off. While I don't remember for sure, it is very likely that the students giving the presentation were actually the ones with the authority.

I think you're missing that the very fact that you had to wonder if you were running afoul of the honor code is what makes people compliant. The Harvey Mudd honor code specifies "integrity" - but what does this mean? When there aren't clear definitions, people start to imitate others, especially those who are assumed to know what the rules really are. The punishment for violations doesn't even need to be explicit, the threat of being ostracized or losing face is a strong enough disincentive for many people. The fact that you internalized the values of the community means you perceived them as just, so for you, the self-policed rules were legitimate. And maybe they were legitimate. But here's a big problem: the administration is not operating transparently, they are counting on social behavior to control students according to a hidden set of rules that aren't up for discussion or debate, unlike an explicit rule book that could be questioned and contested.

The problem with the disciplinary board follows the same logic: just as vague, open-ended rules create more compliant behavior, you should expect that a student-run disciplinary board will also penalize deviant behavior much more enthusiastic precisely because the administration is hands-off.

The important question is whether the (explicit or implicit) rules are good rules, not whether you're permitted to self-police them. Self-policing may be more efficient, but the cost is less transparency and more conservative behavior.

Your perception of a lack of transparency is not accurate. Under the honor code at Mudd, every case that comes before either of the two student boards must be made public. Student names are withheld, as are other identifying characteristics (building names, professor names, etc.). Both boards are required to follow these precedents, and anyone can look at them. If a precedent is abandoned, then the boards have to give a very good reason why. Also, students who feels that the board has ruled unfairly have a right to challenge the ruling (and before you ask, they often win these challenges).

As for the honor code not being up for debate or discussion, that is patently untrue. Not only are there regularly scheduled community discussions of the honor code and any changes that ought to be made to the code or how it is enforced, but there are also rules in place that require any major changes to the code to be approved by a student vote.

As to the student board "penaliz[ing] deviant behavior much more enthusiastic(sic.) precisely because the administration is hands-off," that is not supported by the evidence at Mudd. The most common penalty by far is a short, anonymous letter of apology to the community. More extreme punishments are rare, and can be easily challenged. I don't know of many administrations with explicit rules who would be that lenient.

> Imagine if traffic laws were "use your own judgment" - no speeding signs

Haven't repeated experiments shown that this does, in fact, create safer roadways for cars, cyclists and pedestrians?

No, they haven't. There was one recently linked on HN, but it was a fairly recent experiment, and it's far more likely to be attributable to the strangeness of it; people used to signs go into hyper-defensive-driver mode when they get to an area with no signs. You take away signs entirely the novelty wears off and people go back to driving like assholes.

Looking at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article3... it looks like the increased safety effect was documented over a period of 25 years in over 100 different locations.

That's strong enough data for me to strongly doubt your theory.

I still don't see any evidence that it will scale - especially in the US. Most areas still have signs, so the areas without signs remain exceptions that put people on the defense.

> You take away signs entirely the novelty wears off and people go back to driving like assholes.

[citation needed]

Have you ever had the chance to drive in a third-world country?

I have - so what you're trying to get across is that the only difference between culture (driving or otherwise) in first and third world countries is in lack of necessary regulations in third world (traffic signs included)?

I call bullshit on this.

What does make a difference IMHO is having as few rules as necessary - BUT making sure that those few are sensible and respected.

Thus - "Don't be a jackass" is a worthy and sufficient rule - if enforced thoroughly.

Moscow is as full of signs as it was 10 years ago, but nowadays people drive better because the fines have skyrocketed and the overall culture kind of increased.

Your rebuttal appears to be unsubstantiated. I did some brief googling to see if I could find evidence one way or the other and came up with the article mentioned but little else in terms of studies or stats. Interesting theory though.

These experiment do not prove much. For instance, it matters a great deal where these experiments were done. In all Indian cities (Bangalore, Delhi, etc), this "experiment" is being done all the time and the results are quite plain to see. There are more deaths and road accidents on these city roads than places with road signs and rules.

Here's an example about the "Montana: No Speed Limit Safety Paradox" - http://www.motorists.org/press/montana-no-speed-limit-safety...

I agree, people are even more obedient in the absence of clear rules.

Imagine if traffic laws were "use your own judgment" - no speeding signs, but the cops could still pull you over on a whim and ticket you for speeding.

Already possible. If you are going 65 on a road marked as 65 but there is 100 foot visibility and black ice on the road, you are going to be pulled over. The speed limit is a limit, not "if you go this speed, you can't get a ticket".

A lot of driving laws are "use your best judgement". For example, in Texas the speed limit is an advisory. You can go faster if you can make the case that it was safest for you to do so (like say you're in Dallas where everyone routinely drives at least 10 mph over the speed limit and driving slower would be a hazard).

Though, as tptacek pointed out a while back, there can be more comfort with well defined boundaries: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1640765

Personally, I love the idea but, with disappointment, I can't pragmatically recommend it for all but the most minor of situations.

There are so many workplace rules and laws that violate common sense that you have to adhere to (e.g. many "harassment" laws) that spelling them out is almost the only way to avoid frequent problems (e.g. My wife was formally reprimanded for not inviting certain colleagues to an after work - and not work related - function. This is called "bullying" nowadays and we spent months dealing with the disciplinary case/suspension/etc. They now have a policy where you have to officially disclose who you are friends with or not and why. My wife no longer works.)

Update: I read too quickly. It seems they've realized the above and are distributing a book of policies too. A shame.

I think it depends on the person. Personally, I make it a habit to forget rules as soon as possible. But I know plenty of intelligent people who need the structure of rules (even to the point where they enjoy a certain level of micromanagement). I think those people are masochists, but they usually think of me as a loose cannon, so it evens out. Sometimes I feel like they're the programmer equivalents to the "by the book" partner in cop shows, while I'm the "never read the book" partner. But maybe I really just like imagining myself in a cop show.

It feels like too many laws make people judgement-lazy and eventually stupid. We're all adults and should be able to figure out what's appropriate. If something isn't, we should be able to talk about it. If you spell out everything that's wrong you're implying that everything else is right, and you're speaking in absolutes.

That depends entirely on the cost of failure.

Nordstrom's became famous for having a "no return policy" return policy, which is the major implication of that 75 word card: a clerk at Nordstrom's could process a return with no receipt 7 months after the purchase if that seemed like the right thing to do to satisfy a customer (especially if it was going to get you to spend $500 more on that visit). But then, the cost of failure in handling a return is maybe $40.

In other environments, the cost of failure is much higher. My team works in one. We're paid to punch holes in other people's very important applications. The cost of breaking rules of engagement could be "halt trading". We have more rules.

Generally, it seems like you want to go the "75 word employee handbook" route when the cost of failure is relatively minimal, and then only if you can use it as a differentiator (you also have to pay for and train people who can demonstrate excellent customer service).

(And, obviously, in 2010, you can't be an employer with a 75 word handbook, unless you want to get sued every time you fire someone.)

"And, obviously, in 2010, you can't be an employer with a 75 word handbook, unless you want to get sued every time you fire someone."

IANAL, but I've worked for plenty of companies that have a 0 word handbook. I don't see why companies can't have a 75-word handbook.

No law says you need to have an employee handbook, but there are a variety of spurious claims terminated employees can make (from harassment to discrimination and so on), and if you're called to the mat, any reason you had for terminating that person should ideally be traceable back to an employee handbook (including the company disciplinary process, so you can give an employee a "warning" and have that mean something afterwards).

Also depends on the degree to which your state has "at will" employment.

The situation is probably much worse if you're in Montana, where there's a statute that makes employers liable for wrongful discharge.

Meanwhile, in the majority of US states, at-will employment is subject to "implied contracts", meaning that one very important purpose of an employee handbook is to eliminate any "implied contract" that a terminated employee could claim to exist.

I'd like discuss your thoughts on hole punching. What sorts of rules do you apply, ethics, etc? What happens when you're successful and you halt trading? What sort of blowback is expected?

We generally test dev, staging, and cert instances, but on virtually every project there's some set of things that must be spelled out in advance, like, "this message bus is shared by production market data systems so don't do anything intrusive with it".

The situation your wife was in is an example of corporate insanity, it doesn't mean that every company has to operate like that, does it? I'm pretty sure that's going overboard in any country. Also, some countries have saner laws than others.

The problem I see with not having rules is different: it can only work when you have people who actually care about the results of their work, and feel that they can make a difference.

I think it can work (see Semco for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maverick_%28book%29) but only with carefully selected people and with conscious effort to foster such culture.

Of course, one way to get people to care about their job and feel like they can make a difference is to not hand them a 3-ring binder of rules, phrases, and duties that they are expected to follow, utter, and carry out like mindless automatons.

Maybe people shouldn't feel comfortable. Maybe feeling comfortable is what leads people to not think critically about their actions. "I want to help you, but it's against the rules."

In my experience, it's the people who don't feel comfortable about what they can do without getting into trouble who most reflexively cite the rules. Think of the teenager who stammers and calls a manager at any mildly out-of-the-ordinary development.

Stupid iPad and my finger. The down vote on your comment was from me and it was unintentional. I liked the link you dug up and shared. I'm sorry. =\

I've done that before too, so it all evens out ;-) Hopefully this will be a thing of the past when the HN iPad app I've heard being released by a couple of HNers comes out!

However, new hire orientations now provide this card along with a full handbook of other more specific rules and legal regulations, as the way Nordstrom operates has changed.

Hopefully the 75-word card still sets the tone, and the full handbook is just to satisfy the bureaucrats.

Probably the handbook is full of over-reactions to various things that happened one time, and were blown way out of proportion- just like every other company.

something like this :) http://sivers.org/punish

This is very cool in theory, but my girlfriend just quit her job at Nordstrom after working there for 3+ years and her experience was very different. She is a very hard and dedicated worker and some of the Nordstrom policies are very unfavorable to employees.

Two quick examples: 1, During one of their biggest sales of the year my girlfriend was working close to 80 hours per week, working long hours and in many occasions working overnight to make sure inventory was on the shelves for the next day. She was told by HR that she would be paid time and a half for her overtime hours, which is pretty standard I would assume. After getting her pay check, it looked extremely low and after verifying with HR they told her that she mis-herd what they said and for overtime hours she is only paid half of her normal hourly rate.

2: Nordstroms health insurance for employees working on the sales floor is off/on each month depending on how much you are selling. One moth my girlfriend had insurance and another month she did not. She was not notified when she was/wasn't eligible and had to pay more than expected several times on various medical bills because of this.

Even after this poor employee treatment, my girlfriend was not mad, the most frustrating thing was that Nordstrom preaches how well it treats their employees and how they are known for it. Clearly this is not the case.

"She was told by HR that she would be paid time and a half for her overtime hours, which is pretty standard I would assume. After getting her pay check, it looked extremely low and after verifying with HR they told her that she mis-herd what they said and for overtime hours she is only paid half of her normal hourly rate."

Was this in the US? And was she salaried? I'm pretty sure this is illegal otherwise.

Yeah, the store on Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Her income from Nordstrom was based on a salary + commission from sales. I said the same thing to her in terms of it not being legal, but they gave her some long winded explanation that I'm sure in one way or another is technically legal.

Maybe she wasn't "required" to work or because she is also paid on commission it somehow doesn't apply to her? I'm really not sure...

The thing that is appalling is that a company that says they are so great to their employees will try to justify these actions and put blame on the ones who are working their butts off and are dedicated to their responsibilities.

The only response she got was from someone in the company who was trying to sympathize with her saying "yeah, well thats why you just don't work more than 40 hours per week"

I like the inscription on Henry Royce's fireplace mantle

"QUIDVIS RECTE FACTUM QUAMVIS HUMILE PRAECLARUM" Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.

I think that would make a nice employee handbook in itself.

However, new hire orientations now provide this card along with a full handbook of other more specific rules and legal regulations, as the way Nordstrom operates has changed.

Too good to be true in the modern day perhaps. Seems like they broke their own Rule #1

Along the same lines, check out the Netflix "Reference Guide on our Freedom & Responsibility Culture": http://www.netflix.com/Jobs

I found it quite an interesting read. Seems like a thoroughly enlightened way to run a company.

Wow! Sounds exciting, full of opportunity and risk. have to be a special person to take advantage of that policy. And that's what they say they are looking for - special people.

"However, new hire orientations now provide this card along with a full handbook of other more specific rules and legal regulations, as the way Nordstrom operates has changed."

That's what I call progress.

Great advice. Too bad Nordstrom does NOT follow it.

Talk to their employees and you'll hear an entirely different story. Sales people are repeatedly told they need to accept fraudulent returns from thieves, which subtracts from commission you never earned since the returned item was stolen. When you shop there, you're subsidizing their insistence on sanctioning thieves.

Wouldn't this cause them trouble if they have a suit for wrongful termination?

A company I work with employs many of their sales force from Nordstroms, since they're on about the same playing field market-wise. Its been a few years, but I did once have a conversation with one sales guy about a story I once heard of a person returning a used tire to a Nordstroms which stood on the grounds of a tire store that was demolished to build the Nordstroms. He explained how he viewed the philosophy behind things like this rule.

If I remember correctly, where needed, they also have a large set of rules which do state things that cannot be done, but they are also very broad. Examples that come to mind involve observing shoplifting by employees, sexual harassment and absenteeism. It basically says that if one breaks the law or does things that negatively effect other workers or customers, the offending employee was subject for review and generally if someone is reviewed for these actions, the employee is most likely fired.

The sames person I spoke with gave me the impression that the 75 word "handbook" was a facade to make the company look very good from the outside, but they also had enough internal rules to cover their rear end for these types of scenarios.

My girlfriend works at a Home Depot, and I recall her telling me a story about one of the stores in her area accepted "returned" tires, despite the store not actually selling tires. They are hanging on the wall in the store as a decoration now.

That's when the schools worked, people had consideration for others, and people wanted to work and get ahead. Businesses worked better back then.

...and kids walked uphill in the snow both ways to get to school?

Is it impossible to believe the world has become worse in some aspects?

Were you alive in the pre-Beatles, pre-drug, pre-Me 1960s?

Nope, but if they were "pre-Me", I doubt I would have liked it. I just so happen to like Me.

I like that rulebook almost as much as Fight Club's rulebook.

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