Best Practice

Hiring Guide: The Probation Period

Alan Price, CEO and HR Expert, BrightHR


A step-by-step guide on establishing a clear, results-driven probation process.

No matter how thorough your selection process, you won’t know how your new recruit performs until they arrive and get started.

Using a probation period gives you an extra chance to check that the candidate is indeed a good fit. Likewise, your employee might like the opportunity to ensure they’ve made the right decision in accepting the job.

What happens during probation
Whether a probationary period is being used or not, new employees should always follow a formal induction procedure. This helps them to feel welcomed and oriented, and also ensures that they can “hit the ground running” once the initial few days or weeks are over.

During the longer probation period, employees should be fully supported to learn about the company’s culture and values. They should be given a comprehensive overview of the tasks they will carry out in the longer term — this can help you assess their competence, and help them understand the role more fully.

Keeping communication clear
Some employees might feel that they’re being scrutinised while on probation. For this reason, it’s a good idea to be clear about what’s expected during this time, and talk about any differences between probation and a normal state of employment.

You could arrange an early one-to-one meeting between the employee and their line manager to discuss expectations of attendance, targets and standards. It’s a good idea to hold follow-up review meetings every few weeks, which also allow the new employee to raise problems in a formal setting.

How long should employee probation last?
There is no law determining how long a probationary period lasts. (Editor’s Note: In Japan, the typical timeframe is three to six months.) However, it should be enough to give your company confidence that your new employee is comfortable and well suited in their new job.

Therefore, its length is often linked to the seniority of the role. Three months is the average length, with six months being the commonly accepted upper limit. Casual workers might need only a week to settle in, whereas senior executives might take a few months to assimilate important culture, information and processes.

The probationary review
You should schedule several formal review meetings throughout the probation period. Formal reviews are a moment to find out how well the employee is doing, identify problem areas, and set up support for improvement as needed.

Set a time for the review that allows time for both you and the employee to prepare, and choose a meeting location free of interruptions.

Prepare by reacquainting yourself with the job description and notes from previous reviews — especially any objectives set last time. Take notes of the issues you want to bring up.

Conducting the probationary review

Highlight the positives
The probation review should focus on both the positives and negatives of the employee’s performance so far. It’s important they feel encouraged to keep progressing. Highlight areas where they are doing well.

Be open and honest about shortcomings
A key reason for holding probation reviews is to help new recruits reach the right level of performance. You should, therefore, be forthright about any problems, providing evidence where possible.

Listen to the employee
Always give the employee the opportunity to respond. They might give a previously unknown reason for their performance issue, which can shed light on how to solve it.

Set objectives and provide support
You should set objectives performance improvement, which the employee must meet before the next review.

You must also provide the necessary support for the employee to achieve these objectives. For example, if the employee cannot perform certain computer tasks, it’s unreasonable to expect them to improve without IT training. Always make sure new recruits have the tools they need to improve. 

Record outcomes a standardised interview form

Keep records of the outcomes of probation reviews and have the employee sign to agree new objectives. Records can provide evidence that reviews have been conducted fairly and that the key points were agreed.

A good way to record outcomes is by using a standard probation review meeting form. By standardising the meeting format, you can help make sure all employees are treated equally.

 

Some typical questions to include on your form include:

  • How effective do you feel you have been in your role so far?
  • Which tasks have you performed well/which tasks do you need to improve on?
  • Are any parts of your role and responsibilities still unclear?
  • Is there any help or support you could receive that would help improve your performance?
  • What do you especially like/dislike about your job?
 

If there’s a problem
If there’s an issue with your new employee during probation, their line manager should address it as quickly as possible. In response, they might need to:

  • arrange additional training
  • give general support and guidance to improve confidence
  • discuss ways to improve the employee’s shortcomings
  • reiterate the need to meet targets or develop appropriately in order to “pass” probation.

Extending probation periods
An alternative to dismissal is to extend an employee’s probation period, thereby giving them the opportunity to improve. There is no law limiting the length of employee probation periods.

Reaching the end of probation
A successful probation should be confirmed in writing before the employee moves on to full employment.

If you wish to terminate the contract because of unsatisfactory performance, it’s best to wait until the probationary period is over. Without due process, the dismissal is likely to be regarded as unfair, or wrongful if it’s in breach of contractual terms. Disciplinary procedures are not usually required during the probationary period.

Alternatively, you might need longer to make your decision. Extending the probationary period gives the employee more time to demonstrate competence, to undertake training, or to spend time with a manager who has been absent. Extensions should last no longer than two months, and should only be used where absolutely necessary.

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leading authority on employment law and HR, Alan Price is CEO of BrightHR, the UK’s leading HR software provider. He is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD with 18 years’ experience in employee relations, a Chartered Manager and Fellow of the CMI, a certified practitioner and Fellow of the AHRI (Australian Human Resources Institute), and a member of the Canadian Human Resource Professional Association. For the last four years, Alan has served as a charity trustee and Non-Executive Director for the global HR professional body, the CIPD, which represents over 140,000 HR professionals worldwide.





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