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Harvard Business School

Rev. October 15, 1999

Nordstrom: Dissension in the Ranks? (A)

The first time Nordstrom sales clerk Lori Lucas came to one of the many “mandatory” Saturday morning department meetings and saw the sign—”Do Not Punch the Clock”—she assumed the managers were telling the truth when they said the clock was temporarily out of order. But as weeks went by, she discovered that on subsequent Saturdays the clock was always “broken” or the time cards were not accessible. When she and several colleagues hand-wrote the hours on their time cards, they discovered that their manager whited-out the hours and accused them of not being “team players.” Commenting on the variety of tasks that implicitly had to be performed after hours, Ms. Lucas said, “You couldn’t complain, because then your manager would schedule you for the bad hours, your sales per hour would fall, and next thing you know, you’re out the door.”1

Patty Bemis, who joined Nordstrom as a sales clerk in 1981 and quit eight years later, told a similar story: Nordstrom recruiters came to me. I was working at The Broadway as Estee Lauder’s counter manager and they said they had heard I had wonderful sales figures. We’d all heard Nordstrom was the place to work. They told me how I would double my wages. They painted a great picture and I fell right into it. . .

1990, p. A1.


The managers were these little tin gods, always grilling you about your sales. . . . You felt like your job was constantly in jeopardy. They’d write you up for anything, being sick, the way you dressed. . . . The girls around me were dropping like flies. Everyone was always in tears. . . . Working off the clock was just standard. In the end, really serving the customer, being an All-Star, meant nothing; if you had low sales per hour, you were forced out. . . . I just couldn’t take it anymore—the constant demands, the grueling hours. I just said one day, life’s too short.2

1Susan Faludi, "At Nordstrom Stores, Service Comes First—But at a Big Price," Wall Street Journal, February 20,

Hilary Weston prepared this case from public sources under the supervision of Professor Robert Simons as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation. Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685 or write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.

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Nordstrom: Dissension in the Ranks? (A)

We haven’t seen any complaints from the union. . . . If employees are working without pay, breaks, or days off, then it’s isolated or by choice.

A lot of them say, “I want to work every day.” I have as many people thank us for letting them work all these hours as complain. I think people don’t put in enough hours during the busy time. We need to work harder. A lot of what comes out makes it sound like we’re slave drivers. If we were that kind of company, they wouldn’t smile, they wouldn’t work that hard. Our people smile because they want to.3

John W. Nordstrom founded Nordstrom in 1901 as a shoe store. Nearly a century later, by the end of 1989, the company had grown to become the nation’s leading specialty retailer of apparel, shoes, and accessories. The company operated 59 department stores in six states and was implementing a national expansion plan that called for store openings in several additional states in the early 1990s. By the end of 1989, sales were approaching $3 billion and Nordstrom...
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