A trope common in Western media, the Cardboard Box of Unemployment has been used by generations of the recently laid off to remove their personal possessions from a former office, locker, or desk after being discharged from their duties. Like a pink slip, it's visual shorthand for "this character was just fired." The sight of a a worker carrying a box stuffed with books, papers, and personal items — like potted plants and family photos — can also indicate that they've merely been demoted, reassigned, or just forced to move to a smaller office, but the sentiment (that their employment status has changed for worse) remains the same.
Oftentimes, this is the result of a disgruntled employee working under a Pointy-Haired Boss snapping and telling said boss to Take This Job and Shove It. The box is also the indispensable accessory of every Fired Teacher. It can be used to show that someone is a Reluctant Retiree: if they knew their retirement was imminent and didn't start packing up their personal items in advance, they're likely to work up until the last minute before grabbing a spare cardboard box to cram all their stuff into.
Not to be confused with the Cardboard Box Home (which is where an impoverished person lives in a box), or Bankruptcy Barrel (which is where an impoverished person wears a barrel). Similar to the Bindle Stick, which holds a character's few possessions after a loss of wealth or status.
About half the examples listed below are Bankers Boxes; sturdy, stack-able, standardized storage boxes found in white-collar workplaces the world over. (Available in white, tan, and faux wood-grain, they even come with convenient handles!) Truth in Television comes into play in that they're so cheap and abundant no employer is going to complain if a recently terminated employee takes one home with them.
- Set up as if it's Played Straight in an ad by job search engine Indeed.com, titled "The Box". The ad begins with a rather stone-faced man with graying hair & beard dressed in a shirt and tie exiting an elevator with a box of his stuff and walking down an impersonal hallway while a voiceover talks about how much time and effort had led up to "this". Viewers are given the impression that he has been fired and is carrying his belongings out in a Cardboard Box of Unemployment, but as a door opens and he walks into a bright, welcoming office space it is revealed that he is actually starting a new job and was carrying a Cardboard Box of Reemployment, making this and Inverted example of the trope.
- Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!: After Patsy is laid off from Jen Walter's attorney office (and by extension, the storage closet she's been renting as a room), Patsy packs her items in a box and moves in with her new roommate Ian. He's surprised to see the box is so small, to which she admits there isn't much to pack since she's been off the grid for several years (due to being dragged to hell; it's a long story.)
- In Alex, black bin liners [i.e. garbage bags] are the container of shame. Sacked bankers are required to pack their personal belongings in a bin liner and are then escorted from the building by security so they can't steal anything. The staff know that a round of firings is coming up when the boss's PA is sent out to by bin liners.
- The eponymous Dilbert of Dilbert has been fired before. This particular strip plays the trope straight, showing Dilbert with a "box full of junk" as he tries to give his Pointy-Haired Boss a Take This Job and Shove It after he's been fired. (It doesn't go so well for Dilbert, to the extent that the strip manages to throw in a Vomit Discretion Shot between the second and third panels.)
- As anti-predator sentiment hits a boiling point in Zootopia, Officer Benjamin Clawhauser (a cheetah) is transferred away front desk duty at the police station. This falls under the "decrease in status" use of the trope — Clawhauser is an extroverted, personable officer who clearly loves his job greeting people. In an administrative sense the move from front desk to records might be a lateral one, but to Clawhauser it's as if he's been Reassigned to Antarctica. His despair is evident as Judy watches him packing his "I Heart Gazelle" coffee mug and snow globe into a box for the move.
Officer Clawhauser: They thought it would be better if a predator - such as myself - wasn't the first face that you see when you walk into the ZPD. They're gonna move me to records. It's downstairs. It's by the boiler.
- After Lester, the protagonist of American Beauty, succeeds in blackmailing his boss and quitting his boring desk job, he leaves the office carrying a box with his belongings hoisted on his shoulder and pumping his fist triumphantly.
- Twice in Bruce Almighty:
- Reporter Bruce goes ballistic during a live TV broadcast when he finds out his co-worker, Evan, was promoted to the position Bruce wanted. The next scene shows Bruce fired from his job; literally tossed out of the WKBW-TV 7 building, followed by security throwing a bankers box full of his personal items at his junk.
- Later on Bruce uses his newfound divine powers to win back his old job, then to cause Evan to have a similar on-air breakdown. Bruce is promoted to Evan's position, and though he is initially happy at the downfall of his rival he has a change of heart after he sees Evan clearing out his office with a similar bankers box. (Bruce then offers Evan his job back.)
- In Donnie Darko, Donnie's teacher Ms. Pomeroy is fired from her job for discussing offensive literature. There is a shot of her leaving the classroom with a box full of books, a desk lamp and a U.S. flag.
- Averted in Fight Club. When the Narrator blackmails his boss at the automotive company into letting him "work from home," he leaves the office with a shopping cart full of fax machines, phones, and computer paraphernalia. Not a cardboard box in sight, despite the office set having been painstakingly designed, built, and filmed to evoke a quintessential soul-sucking, 9-to-5, white-collar corporate headquarters.
- Happens in Ghostbusters (2016), when Erin is fired from her job (after Abby and Jillian post the video of her covered in ectoplasm and shouting that she believes in ghosts). Abby and Jillian are terminated shortly after, but they forgo the bankers boxes and start wheeling equipment out with carts.
- Happens twice in Hidden Figures:
- As Vivian escorts Katherine to the Space Task Group's Flight Research Division to be their new [human] computer, Katherine follows with her necessary computing equipment and desk items in a cardboard box. She carries the box like a shield as she is introduced to her new, all-white coworkers.
- After Katherine is told she's no longer needed in the Space Task Group now that NASA's IBM computer is performing calculations for them, she packs all her desk items and a few gifts from coworkers into a similar box and leaves.
- It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie implies this trope: the Big Bad is trying to take over the Muppets' theater, and snidely tells them that if they need help moving out, there are discarded boxes behind a nearby business that they can use.
- Looney Tunes: Back in Action has Daffy Duck go into histrionics while arguing to the Warner Brothers that he's much more bankable than Bugs Bunny. Unmoved, the brothers have a yes-man bring in a box of personal effects. Daffy recognizes the contents.
Daffy Duck: Say, that looks like the stuff from my office.Brother #1: You don't have an office.Brother #2: Not any more.Daffy Duck: [breaking fourth wall] Symbolically, this is bad.
- Subverted in Marie (1985). When the title character is fired from her government job, she removes several boxes of files which could be useful for the ongoing FBI investigation. She then has an Oh, Crap! moment when she runs into a colleague, but he apparently thinks she's just clearing out her desk and helps her carry the boxes to her car.
- Implied in Spider-Man: Homecoming, when Liz tells Peter that she and her mother are moving to Oregon, her mother Doris Toomes can be seen in the background carrying a bankers box with several books and a trophy in it. It's unclear if Mrs. Toomes worked at Midtown School of Science and Technology and has had to quit her job, or if she is helping Liz clean out her locker, but the impact of the scene is the same - the Toomes family members are persona non grata in New York City, and they're leaving to avoid the negative attention they'd receive during Adrian Toomes' trial.
- Though uncommon in German media, bankers boxes show up here and there thanks to Eagleland Osmosis. One example can be seen in the Stromberg movie. Near the end of the film, the protagonist gets fired from his job at an insurance company and can be seen leaving the office with a bankers box holding a globe, a trophy and an honorary certificate.
- April in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) after being fired from the news station.
- Venom (2018): When Anne's law firm discovers that she was the source of the leak (after Eddie learns about the symbiote/ human trials in an e-mail from the Life Foundation on Anne's computer), she is seen leaving her (former) workplace with a cardboard box.
- When Tess in Working Girl gets fired from her secretary job, she carries one of these boxes with her.
- Invoked and then downplayed in Agent Carter. Peggy is told to pack her things after the SSR catches wind of her vigilante investigation and fires her. However, she was given so few responsibilities from her sexist coworkers that there isn't much to pack.
- Blue Bloods: Sid Gormley carries a Banker's box with his possessions to 1PP when he thinks he's being summoned to be terminated by Frank, only to be surprised when he's rewarded with a promotion to Special Assistant to the Commissioner.
- In Breaking Bad episode "Green Light", Walt gets fired from his teaching job and we see him carry a box with his work items into the parking lot. He places it on top of Jesse's car where it is forgotten. When Jesse speeds off the box crashes to the ground, much to Walt's chagrin.
- Daredevil (2015): In "The Ones We Leave Behind" after getting fired from the Bulletin, Ben Urich is shown bringing home a Banker's box with all his office memorabilia including his framed front page articles, just in time for Wilson Fisk to choke him to death. In between seasons 1 and 2, we see Ellison re-acquire all of Ben's memorabilia to restore the office to the way it used to be, as a shrine to Ben. And that's how the office continues to look even after Karen moves in.
- In the Doctor Who episode "Turn Left", Donna is downsized from her clerical job. She leaves with a cardboard box containing her possessions... along with some other items that aren't technically hers but she decides to take as compensation.
Donna: Hole punch. Having that. Stapler, mine. Toy cactus. You can have that, Beatrice. Catch.
- Fi: Özge is handed one after losing her job in the second episode. It falls apart in the lobby, adding to her humiliation.
- Occurs in The Flash, when Barry makes a deal with Julian: Julian won't turn Caitlin over to the police for her Killer Frost spell, and in return he demands Barry resign from CCPD. In the next scene Barry packs his desk into a box.
- Invoked in "Fugitive," the sixth season opener. Detective Hank and Sergeant Wu return to the precinct to keep tabs on the search for Nick, only for Officer Franco to inform them that Captain Renard is on the warpath. Hank notes that it "looks like he's cleaning out his office." The next shot of the interior of Renard's office reveals that he's got a bankers box on the console next to his desk, which has been emptied of his [sparse] personal effects.
- Played straight two episodes later in "Oh Captain, My Captain," when Captain Renard has demanded Detective Hank and Sergeant Wu's resignations for their role in arresting him for the murder of Rachel Wood. Both Hank and Wu are shown with bankers boxes on their desks, and later announce to Nick that they are "officially unemployed." It doesn't stick, seeing as Nick gets them their jobs back by the end of the episode.
- Subverted in the last episode of Jack Ryan, when James Greer is promoted to deputy station chief in Moscow. Jack catches him at his desk as he packs his personal items into a bankers box in preparation for the big move.
- Leverage: Exploited in an episode where the team is trying to keep a company from covering some scandal on a plane, Hardison is sent to infiltrate the offices and steal the information directly. He does this by calling a bunch of meetings, then faking sickness to dump presentations on hapless stooges while he hacks the computers. At the end he puts a bunch of stuff (including the drive with the information he needs) in a cardboard box then makes a show of leaving, yelling about all he's put into this company and for them to just cut him off like this. And on his birthday too! As he does, a pair of office staff watch him go.
Female Coworker: He was always so sensitive.Male Coworker: I never liked him.
- Mad Men is bursting with examples, as it's set in the heart of white-collar corporate Manhattan during the 1960's:
- Inverted in the first episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" as Peggy Olson arrives at her new job at Sterling Cooper carrying a cardboard box with her work supplies in it.
- Subverted when she's promoted to junior copywriter in ''The Wheel". As Joan shows her to her new shared office, Peggy caries a bankers box full of items from her desk in the secretary pool.
- Played straight when Peggy fires Joey Baird in "The Summer Man" after he tapes a demeaning cartoon to Joan's window. Joey attempts a Take This Job and Shove It when he grabs a bankers box Peggy's currently using to store files, dumps it out, and takes it with him, but it mostly serves to characterize him as a petulant Manchild.
- Played with twice in the episode "Lost Horizon", when Peggy Olson moves into a new office at McCann carrying a bankers box full of personal trinkets. The first attempt at the move◊ is a false start, but by the end of the episode the move-in is played much more triumphantly◊. (The box used in filming the scene was later auctioned off as memorabilia.)
- Happens in Prison Break: After Warden Pope discovers burns on Micheal, he pins them on Roy Geary, a corrupt guard who'd been shaking down inmates and stealing their possessions for months. The warden searches Geary's locker, finding several stolen items. The next scene is Geary being marched out of the prison, carrying his belongings in a box.
- A Saturday Night Live skit that first aired during the January 27, 2018 show featured Will Ferrell as an office worker advertising a deodorant for men "who are feeling the heat because their time's up" (i.e. men who have been outed as harassers and abusers by the "Me Too" movement). As the fake commercial comes to a close, Ferrell's character marches into the office elevator with a bankers box (laden with a plant, a cup of pencils, and various other office paraphernalia) in his arms and announces that he's been fired.
Office Woman: You're disgusting.Office Man: But my pits aren't!Office Man (to another elevator passenger): I got fired.
- Played with in the music video for "Levels" by Avicii. The opening scene shows a tired, frumpy looking man with a Bankers Box in his arms taking the elevator to a stuffy office space. As he disembarks from the elevator, another worker dumps a mess of files into his already overfull box. The implication here is that he's using the box to take his work home with him — the photos on his desk and familiarity with his coworkers indicate that he's worked at the company for some time. Although it doesn't signal that he's been fired when it appears, the Bankers Box in the opening does foreshadow the man's dismissal from the company later in the video (due to an outbreak of uncontrollable dancing).
- Played for Laughs in season 10 of Acquisitions Incorporated, where the Bad Boss Omin learns that one of his underlings unwittingly assisted in Viari pulling a fast one on him. Omin has this to say to his (now ex-)employee:
Omin: Put everything you like and care about in a box, and when I come back, we will talk about what happens to the box.
- This happens to all eight main cast members at the end of the series finale of Drawn Together.
- Only utilized in the Inverted manner in the Pixar Shorts animation Purl. When the eponymous sentient ball of yarn "Purl" shows up for her first day of work at B.R.O. Capital, she's carrying a Bankers Box filled with office supplies she has decorated with custom knitting. Later another ball of yarn, "Lacey", and an unnamed human both begin their first day at B.R.O. Capital with Bankers Boxes full of personal effects.
- The Simpsons: When Gil is fired from the real estate company, someone brings him a box with his stuff, flips it upside down and tells him to pick them up.