Curator asks for `pink slip'

Mystery: A student of the American workplace is having no luck finding the origin of the fateful termination notice.

April 10, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

"Chrysler doles out 26,000 pink slips"

"More pink slips at high-tech firms"

"The `pink slips' are falling like confetti"

Read the headlines and it seems that just about everybody is being handed a pink slip these days. Everybody, that is, except Peter Liebhold.

And he's feeling just a tad jealous.

A curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, Liebhold has spent more than a decade trying to crack a minor mystery of American business: Just what the heck is a pink slip, anyway?

"We've been chasing it for years," says Liebhold, who oversees the museum's work culture archive. "We'd love to collect that."

The 47-year-old historian and his colleagues have already tracked down many other notable artifacts of the American workplace, from the first filing cabinet to a specimen of bureaucratic "red tape" (originally crimson-colored twill used by 19th-century secretaries to bundle documents).

Who would have thought a pink slip would be so tough? After all, more than 173,000 workers were let go in February alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Pink slip" parties, meanwhile, have become all the rage among the young and jobless from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Still, after years of dead ends, Liebhold is beginning to give up hope. "The real pink slip might not exist," he said recently -- and perhaps never did.

The mystery of the elusive pink paper highlights just how little scholars know about the history of how workers get canned. "Termination practice," as scholars coolly call it, is one of the least studied areas of business, notes Alex Keyssar, a labor historian at Duke University.

One thing's for sure, termination practice today doesn't seem to involve much formality--pink or otherwise.

Workers at fob Inc., a Chicago Internet applications developer, recently got sacked via e-mail. At New York Times Digital, some employees who were laid off recently learned the bad news not from a note in their paycheck but an item in the morning paper.

Occasionally workers must rely on their powers of deduction. Marcus Ronaldi, who last month lost his job at NorthPoint Communications in Emeryville, Calif., says he didn't get a pink slip or anything else informing him he was headed for the street.

The clue? When the 30-year-old Upper Marlboro native arrived at work and found people queuing up to buy the office PCs. "Unless you're an idiot, you kind of see it coming," he says.

"Employers are much more careful about what they put in writing these days," notes Sanford Jacoby, a historian with the UCLA business school. Most companies, he says, want to avoid lawsuits over unfair termination.

Murky origins

What workers did in the early days of the Industrial Revolution is anybody's guess; the origins of the pink slip remain murky.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of the phrase occurs in a 1915 American pulp novel. "And have Murphy hand me the pink slip tonight!" urges a character in "Covering the Look In Corner," a baseball yarn by the prolific but now-forgotten dime novelist Gilbert Patten.

Most scholars have assumed the phrase originated when some company somewhere settled on pink dismissal forms.

After all, bureaucrats and colorful paperwork have long gone hand in hand--and even span cultures, notes Jan Ivarsson, a translator and member of the American Dialect Society.

Germans dismissed from their jobs, for example, were said to "get the blue letter" ("den blauen Brief bekommen"). In France, military personnel were discharged with a "cartouche jaune," or yellow paper, says Ivarsson.

Other scholars speculate the pink slip stems not from a particular company's dismissal form but from one of pink's less familiar meanings: "to pierce, stab."

Many expressions describing the loss of a job have "some undertone of injury and violence," says UCLA's Jacoby. "After all, we often say things like, `get the axe' or `cut.'"

If there was a company that once used pink slips, Liebhold hasn't found it.

Over the years he's scoured scholarly journals from Business History Review to the obscure Trained Men for clues. He's quizzed human resources staffers at companies such as Merrill Lynch and labor scholars in online discussion groups.

Last month, Liebhold thought for a moment he might have nailed it. He found a footnote in an obscure journal article that led him to another journal article that claimed the pink slip originated with Ford Motor Co.

Colored paper

Early in the company's history, according to the article, supervisors used colored paper as a primitive performance review. Workers who found white paper in their cubbyholes at the end of the day knew they'd gotten kudos.

Those who saw pink, however, need not bother coming back.

The source of the story turns out to be Mike Deblieux, a 52-year-old management consultant in Tustin, Calif., who says he first heard the Ford anecdote in college and has been repeating it at seminars and conferences ever since.

"Whether that's historically accurate or not, I honest to God can't tell you," says Deblieux.

Although the pink slip hasn't panned out like he planned, Liebhold says he's not too disappointed. In addition to being tied up with two new major exhibits, the busy curator has other historic office artifacts on his mind. Tops on his most-wanted list: A hard hat with an American flag ("preferably from a worker during the late '60s or early '70s"), an early water cooler, and what he calls the the ultimate office icon: a doughnut box ("Have you ever noticed who brings the doughnuts and why?" he asks).

Besides, he says, even if a pink slip had turned up, he's not so sure he could have persuaded its owner to give it up.

"There's a stigma attached to losing a job," he says. "People may be reluctant to see that experience memorialized for perpetuity in a museum."

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