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Following the Trail of the Elusive Pink Slip

Despite a curator's dogged research, origins of the term remain mysterious.

April 13, 2001|MICHAEL STROH | BALTIMORE SUN

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," said Liebhold, 47, who oversees the museum's work culture archive. "We'd love to collect that."

Liebhold 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.

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

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, noted Alex Keyssar, a labor historian at Duke University.

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, Ivarsson said.

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."

Over the years Liebhold has 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.

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, who said he 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," Deblieux said.

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