Last reviewed 30 April 2021

Hannah Williamson, Advice Manager at Croner discusses probation periods, how they work, and some of the common pitfalls employers fall into.

A probation period is a staple of most employment contracts in the UK. They are usually tied to certain contractual perks and job security. While many laws that protect employees kick in after two years of continuous employment, probation periods add an extra layer of protection for you when hiring someone new.

What is a probation period?

A probation period at work is a trial stage for the employee. During this time, employers can judge whether a new starter is right for their role. The length of the period and its terms vary depending on the type of contract, the role, and the workplace itself.

How long is a probation period?

The most common length for a probation period in the UK is either three or six months. The decision for how long this should last is up to the employer, but probation periods usually are as follows:

  • three-month probation period — typically used for entry-level employees in roles where little or no previous experience is required

  • six-month probation period — typically used for more senior positions or roles where significant experience/education is required

  • longer than six months — it can be quite rare for a probation period to last longer than six months. While there is not a specific six-month probation period law stating employers cannot do so, having a period that lasts much longer than this may be considered unreasonable without justification. However, probation may last longer than this by utilising an extension.

Failing a probation period

If the employee fails to meet the standards, is guilty of misconduct or poor performance, or simply is not suited for the role, there are options. Dismissal may be an option; however, there are alternatives worth considering, such as extending a probation period.

This will serve as a wake-up call for the employee, particularly if the employer set out points where it may wish to see improvement. Often, this results in a much better performance and the employee staying on in the role. This should be set out in writing, and clearly detail:

  • how long the extension will last

  • the reason for the extension

  • the improvement expected to be seen by the end of the period

  • any further support or training provided

  • Outcome if standards are not met.

If this does not work out, then the employer can dismiss the employee with the appropriate notice.

Notice period during probation

If, at some point during an individual’s employment, within their probation period, an employer decides that they are unsuitable, they can be dismissed but employers must provide them with adequate notice. For new employees, this would be one week.

However, employers might utilise a probation period for an employee who has been promoted to a new role. In this case, employers should consider how many years they have been with the company. Those who have been with the company for over two years, should receive two weeks’ notice. Beyond that, employers must give them at least one week’s notice for every year they have been with the business. Another option, is to send them back to their previous role.

End of a probation period

If everything has gone well, the employer should arrange a meeting with the employee to confirm the passing of their probation period. Employers should also confirm this in writing. If there are company benefits that only apply once the probation has passed, employers should also make sure the employees are clear what they are and their entitlement to them.

Probation period UK laws

While there are many probation period rules, there is one that gets the most attention from employers and employees alike — unfair dismissal. While employees have fewer employment rights at the beginning of their employment, they are not completely unprotected.

Whether the employee goes to Acas for probation period advice or some other source, they all agree, employment begins on the employee’s first day, and from that moment they have statutory rights.

These include the right to:

  • the National Minimum Wage (NMW)

  • have a Statement of Main Terms (SMT) on day one of employment

  • a payslip with details on their wage and deductions, such as National Insurance

  • not be discriminated against due to a protected characteristic

  • daily rest break of at least 20 minutes if they work over six consecutive hours each day

  • weekly rest breaks

  • time off, with no pay, for training

  • time off, with no pay, to deal with emergencies

  • notice of dismissal.

So, as long as employers provide adequate notice, and do not discriminate, they can conduct a probation period dismissal fairly and effectively.

One right not mentioned in this list above is the right to time off for antenatal care and the right to have 52 weeks of maternity leave. Pregnancy is also a protected characteristic. This means an employee falling pregnant during a probation period is not a fair reason for dismissal.

Most employers are aware of what a probation period is, but issues can still arise if not utilised correctly. Employers should ensure their contracts are correct and compliant. If employers handle probations incorrectly they can face an unfair dismissal claim.