NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- While a pink slip of paper sitting ominously in a mailbox means "you're fired" in the movies, nobody seems to have had this experience in real life.
"It's not that
pink slips are an urban legend," says Jesse Sheidlower, North America's editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary. "It's just that no one has found an actual pink slip at around the time when the expression first started to be used."
Termination procedures have evolved significantly during the past 50 years.
Sheidlower explains that the furthest back the colloquialism can be traced is to 1904, when a typographer's journal wrote that making a mistake earned a person a pink slip and that accumulating enough of these would get a person fired.
Funnily enough, the phrase has many parallels to the firing practice of other cultures, Sheidlower confirmed, pointing to a
. Germans get blue papers, while French military personnel are said to get a yellow one.
Other than that, no hard evidence exists to prove people were actually issued a pink slip as notice they no longer had a job, though Bruce Hurwitz, president of
in New York, speculates that the pink slip could also be traced back to a company's general propensity to use tri-colored forms for documenting an employee's transgression.
"The yellow copy goes to human resources, the blue copy is for the employer and the pink one goes to the employee," he says.
Origin mysteries aside, terminations have evolved significantly during the past 50 years.
"Fifty years ago, it was sort of a free for all," says Bruce Clarke, president and chief executive of
, a human resource management firm in North Carolina. He explains that companies would fire employees willy-nilly with little regard for protocol.
"The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction," he says, explaining that companies have to jump through plenty of hoops to let someone go.
Crossing the "T"
Marc Mandelmann, a New York-based employment lawyer with the firm
, says there were two major laws passed in the late 1980s that changed the way employees could conduct large-scale layoffs.
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires that companies with 100 employees or more notify staff well in advance before shutdowns or bulk terminations, and the
was intended to prevent older workers from bearing the brunt of mass layoffs and offer protections for their employee benefits.
Mandelman attributes employers' more careful planning before a termination less to these significant changes in legislation, though, and more to the larger number of employees becoming versed on the rights federal and state laws provide to them.
"Terminated employees are more likely to consult with a lawyer these days to see if they have a claim," Mandelmann says. "Employers are much more concerned about having lawsuits filed against them."
The desire to minimize litigation with disgruntled former employees, Mandelman says, has led most companies to offer all employees some type of severance package upon termination, no matter what the reason behind the firing may be.
These packages will vary, though Mandelman says one to two weeks of pay for each year of service has become a popular go-to formula and are given in exchange for the employer's signature on a form that waives their right to sue.
Once an agreement has been reached, an employer will provide the employee with a formal letter outlining the terms.
"These days, severance package documentation is the new pink slip," Mandelman says. He adds that most states require companies to provide employees with a written letter outlining the date the termination went into effect and explaining when extended benefits, such as COBRA health insurance, can be optioned. These formal letters mirror pink slips in function, if not in color.
Dotting the "I's" in termination
Also markedly different is the fact that most companies no longer allow terminated or laid-off employees to work two weeks past their initial notice of dismissal.
Mandelman says that this is being driven by a heightened need for safety and security in the workplace as
employers want to protect
themselves, other employees and their property from being harmed by an emotional and disgruntled co-worker.
He says that whether these employees are still paid for two weeks of service will depend largely on the corporate policies outlined in their handbook; notification requirements triggered by the WARN Act only apply to mass layoffs, and many states do allow at-will employment, meaning employees can be terminated at any time with or without cause within a certain period, negating the need to provide two weeks' pay. Gross misconduct, similarly, can negate rights to the extra earnings.
There are, however, laws in many states that protect the wages an employee has already earned, including unused vacation days. These laws vary in severity. California, for instance, requires that employers issue final paychecks at the time of termination, but generally, Mandelman says, they do favor employees or at the very least make things very complicated for the companies that fire them.
Finally, Hurwitz points out companies are becoming increasingly likely to require an employee to participate in an exit interview when they resign.
He says that these interviews, too, are meant as a way to protect the company from any claims that individuals may try to file against them later on.
"They could use anything that you say negatively about them against you," Hurwitz cautions.
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