Many employers engage new employees on a probation, or trial, period as a matter of course, to give them time to determine whether or not the recruit is satisfactory. In some ways this is a good idea, but not if used as a substitute for sound recruitment practice says Bob Patchett.

An employee who is dismissed after only a short period in a job is likely to carry a stigma that could affect future employment prospects, and the person would be greatly disadvantaged if he or she had moved house in order to take the job. The employer also would be disadvantaged because time and money would have been wasted on a recruitment exercise that proved to be a failure. Much better to spend time and money on acquiring and practising good recruitment techniques and interviewing skills so that the exercise produces an excellent candidate who will quickly settle in and become fully productive.

So what are the advantages of a probation period? On the surface it appears simply to give both parties — you and the employee — opportunity to see whether or not you are suited. But the arrangement is much deeper than that. You have given yourself a focus to ensure that the employee quickly settles in and gets up to speed in the job. This is a time to have the recruit recognise his or her role in the greater organisation and what that means for the job, and thus direct performance in perhaps better ways than you yourself can explain. Conversely it enables you to fine-tune that performance and the employee’s behaviour if you recognise that the person has not got them quite right. This is not unlike a trainer coaching someone in a new sport by spotting bad practice early on so that it does not become a habit that later is hard to break. This is also a time to spot talents that were missed at recruitment and could be useful to the organisation, and, if carried out well, the whole exercise can do much to make the employee want to stay with you.

The form of the probation period must be set out in the contract of employment. State clearly both its length and its purpose, for example “The first three months of your employment will be a probation period during which we will work together to bring your performance up to the standard required for the job”. This standard must of course be set out precisely and ideally explained in a detailed job description that also contains the targets or key objectives underlying it. The probation period should then be programmed in the form of review dates or key stages. Then the performance of the employee during the period must be regularly and carefully monitored so that any appropriate remedial action may be taken promptly. Close monitoring should take place during the first couple of weeks while the employee is getting to know how the organisation works, but may then tail off to, say, weekly meetings.

In these early days the employee almost certainly will need help, support, correction and encouragement, and you should not deprive him or her of any of them. This may indeed be time-consuming, but it is in your interest to get the employee up to top performance as quickly as possible. Your meetings should take the form of a two-way conversation during which the employee can tell you what problems he or she is encountering and conversely you can point out where performance or behaviour is below par and what the employee needs to do about it. You may find that further training is required or that some adjustment needs to be made to the organisation. Indeed these probation period meetings can throw up problems in the organisation’s operating structure since newcomers may spot issues that existing employees have failed to see. Where appropriate give compliments, especially if the employee is trying hard but not quite succeeding. If however the employee is just failing to perform, make clear in as friendly a way as possible what is the gap between actual and required performance, and go on to discuss what the employee proposes to do about it, with or without your help. Try to avoid issuing warnings as these encounters are essentially part of your training and not your disciplinary regime.

Make clear in the contract your right to extend the probation period if the employee is absent on holiday or through sickness, or indeed if, when the end date arrives, the employee still has not reached your required standard but you nevertheless feel that he or she soon will get there. For that reason also make clear that the period does not constitute a fixed-term contract and that you have the right to end the contract before the term ends if the employee clearly is unsuited to the job. In this latter case you would need to give the appropriate warnings dictated by your disciplinary procedure unless the contract of employment states otherwise. Even so, an employee might well claim breach of contract if an informal followed by a formal warning were not given in what is essentially a development period when the employer should be making great efforts to bring the employee to full performance standard. So keep your statements about unsatisfactory performance or behaviour firm but friendly, and always keep detailed notes of all monitoring meetings.

Make clear to existing employees who have applied for and been promoted into a job what will happen if they fail to perform by the end of a probation period; can you guarantee that they will be redeployed into their original or similar job? This would surely be an obligation if you yourself had promoted them.

If the probation period comes to an end with a satisfactory result, that is to say you now have a well-performing and behaving employee, offer your congratulations both to indicate that the close monitoring is no longer necessary and to inspire the employee. You may wish to mark the occasion by awarding some token such as a company tie, scarf or badge, by having a meeting to celebrate the fact with fellow employees, or by giving a pay increase.

As a manager you need to treat every failure as a learning experience. This is not a cliché; if you have made a mistake, ask yourself what went wrong so that you do not make the same mistake again. If therefore the employee did not make the grade, ask yourself why. Was your recruitment process at fault, in which case did you specify the job incorrectly or do your recruiters need interviewing training? Was the induction process appropriate and carried out correctly? Was the employee given appropriate supervision and help? And most disturbing, did you really monitor the employee regularly and closely? Involve a colleague in considering these questions carefully in order to ascertain what went wrong and what action you need to take to avoid this waste of time and resources in the future.

Probation periods are a valuable management technique for bringing new employees quickly up to speed — but they do require careful thought and application.

Last reviewed 7 June 2017