Bring Back The Pink Slips!

Back in the days of the Personnel Department, the “pink slip” was a notice included with the employee’s paycheck notifying them that their employment had ended, either by termination or layoff.  No one knows when this practice came into being, or how it was even labeled with the color pink.  Even Peter Liebhold, a curator at the National Museum of American History, spent ten years searching for literal evidence of the pink slip as a firing device and came up empty.  But regardless of who or how it started, it became a common-place term that many employees knew of and feared.

Should we literally bring back a pink piece of paper that says “You’re Fired” as a method to separate or terminate employees?  No…but we should do something similar for much better reasons.

In some states, such as California, there are laws in place that require an employer to give their workers a written explanation for their termination when they are being informed.   The employee is clearly told the violation or reason behind the company’s decision so there is no “speculation” or “ulterior motives” as to why the employee was separated from the company.  The assumption is that the written explanation includes concrete reasons, including facts and dates, to clearly support management’s decision.

But, what about those states that are “At Will” and technically don’t require notice to terminate an employee or provide a reason?  You are not as protected as you think.  Remember, if the employee believes that they were unjustly terminated, discriminated against or their firing was a form of retaliation from their manager, they will have ground to file not only an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint but also a lawsuit for unlawful termination.

Some employers fear giving a written explanation for termination of employment.  They worry that somehow the employee will find a way to use it against them so they feel its easier – and safer – to simply cut ties and leave it at that.  Except, sometimes it doesn’t end that easily.

So, why “bring back the pink slip?”

Bottom line: You are creating a final piece of documentation that will be valuable if you have argue why a termination should be help both in court and with unemployment (if terminated for cause).

The best reason, however, is it serves as a final “catch” for management and HR to ensure that the process was handled correctly and legally.  Think about it – How many managers have terminated employees in the heat of the moment?  At that point, words are exchanged – words that can later be used against the company.  Add to that, if the employee had never been previously counseled or reprimanded but the manager simply let his frustrations build up and explode, then unemployment (and the courts) will argue that the company didn’t do enough to address or correct the employee’s performance problems.  All of which will work AGAINST the employer…even if overall it was the right and financially responsible action to take.

Before you do anything!…Have a sit down discussion with the Supervisor and review all documentation in the employee’s file.  If the employee has never had a performance issues and now suddenly the supervisor wants to terminate, you are going to have quite the uphill battle in defending your decision in court.  Claims of “retaliation” or “personality conflict” may be raised in that case leaving the courts to side with the employee.

If you feel you have a strong enough case and all signs point to terminating the employee, then put together a Letter of Termination (or Termination Notice) to present to the employee when you are letting them go.

What do you include in the Termination Notice?

  • You want a clear statement stating the reason why the employee was terminated. Don’t beat around the bush or try to appear vague thinking that will protect the company.

Take a look at your Employee Handbook.  What are some of the reasons cited as to why an employee can be terminated?

For example: Excessive tardiness or absence, Neglect/misuse of company property, Intentional violation of safety rules, Excessive personal use of phones, Taking extended breaks, Intentional violation of policy, Use of abusive language, Drug or alcohol use on the job, Substandard work or performance, Insubordination or refusing to follow orders, Conduct which disrupts business activities, Harassment of fellow employees/customers/suppliers, Deliberate injury to another person, Conviction of a crime.

  • List previous disciplinary actions or verbal discussions that were held with the employee. You want to remind them the steps the company took to work with them to correct the problem…and word it in that manner when you cite the information:

“We have previously attempted to address and work to correct this issue in the past….(list dates)”

  • List any benefits or pay information still due to the employee:
  1. If you are paying them any severance or unused vacation time, make sure you note it here.
  2. Let them know when their final paycheck will be processed (next payroll date) and how they will receive their check (mailed or they can pick it up).
  3. Let them know when their health benefits will expire (immediately or end of month) and what options they have to enroll in COBRA.
  4. And finally, give them information on how to withdraw or rollover any 401k money they have.

Times have changed and employees are more informed of their rights.  Your best defense – is a strong offense…and that means taking the time to make sure you have a process in place to protect the company.  No one likes to terminate an employee, but there will be times that it becomes inevitable.  Thinking proactively will help eliminate potential employee issues after the fact, so if your company isn’t already doing so – revisit your termination procedure and see how adding this can benefit you in the long run.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: Barb Buckner

Over 15 years of experience as a strategic Human Resource Professional with a proven history of implementing HR strategies and managing employee relations, process improvement and compliance. A reputation for leveraging business relationships, engaging the workforce and creating a positive return on investment into HR initiatives.

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