Stop Using Probationary Periods!

Photograph of Jenefer Livings, Founder of Silk Helix Ltd
8 July 2022
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A probationary period is essentially a trial period at the beginning of employment. They usually last 3, 6 or 12 months - however, there is no specific legal definition or length. In fact, there is no legal definition and it doesn’t give you any particular advantage.

So why are we bothering?

Probationary periods have become one of those norms, we just all do it. When I ask employers if they want a probationary period in their contracts the answer is almost inevitably yes.

“Because we always have” should never be a reason for doing anything. I’ve often advised it serves as a reminder to the Manager that they need to train, induct and review performance - but there are better ways of doing that.

Now, with costs increasing - every efficiency counts and as I see it, stopping probationary periods is one of the quickest and most obvious ways to cut meaningless admin! (Yes, I have reached the conclusion that probationary periods really are meaningless admin)

What are the benefits of probationary periods?

  1. They remind the line Manager that this is a period of learning for the new person and that performance should be reviewed.
  2. They remind the individual they are on trial, that they need to prove themselves before being considered a fully integrated member of the team (I’m not convinced this really sounds positive).

What are the disadvantages of probationary periods?

  1. Individuals feel like they’re not fully part of the team. I’ve heard of people who will not update their LinkedIn profile until probation is complete. They feel like they’re still part of the recruitment process and not really in the team, 6 months of that feeling is a long time.
  2. It sends a message that you don’t trust people to do a good job or you don’t trust your recruitment process so a trial is needed. It is true there is no such thing as perfect recruitment but we don’t need to shout about it and we can deal with the few that go wrong in a different way.
  3. Admin - suddenly getting to the end of realising a meeting is needed, a review form needs filling in and a letter needs sending. Manager’s don’t arrive at that meeting and suddenly realise the person isn’t performing (at least they shouldn’t), problems should be picked up earlier and resolved. The reality is most people are not a problem, most by this point are part of the team and doing well, this review meeting is just taking up time.
  4. Extending probationary periods has a demoralising effect. If we’re wanting to get people up to speed we want to motivate them.
  5. They stop line Managers doing more helpful regular 1 to 1 meetings which identify issues quickly, encourage open communication and keep everyone on the right track.

What about those who don’t match up to expectations and we need to dismiss them on probation?

We don’t suddenly reach the probation review meeting, fill in the form and realise we’re going to “fail” this person and therefore they are dismissed. It simply doesn’t happen.

In fact, when it comes to a dismissal, there is no such thing as “failing probation” as a reason for dismissal. Hence there is no legal advantage in having one. We still need to follow the practices of avoiding an unfair dismissal tribunal claim.

All we’ve done is harmed the people who do a good job by telling them they’re on trial, given Managers additional admin to do and very little help with dismissing the few people who made it through the recruitment process when they shouldn’t have done.

The reality is we have 2 years before someone can bring a straightforward unfair dismissal claim. Prior to this, they can bring an automatic unfair dismissal claim (e.g. if they’re dismissed for a discriminatory reason), they could also bring a wrongful dismissal claim if you’ve not followed your own processes. If your disciplinary procedure is non-contractual then employers can dismiss within the first two years without following it (as long as the reason isn’t an automatically unfair reason).

This means that without even mentioning the word probationary period to anyone you effectively have a 2 year probationary period. If someone isn’t the person they told you they were in the interview, you’re going to work this out within 2 years.

What should we do instead?

When someone new joins the organisation there is a period of learning, helping them to settle in and find their way around (whether that be the physical office or online systems).

Plan what the first few months should look like, consider:

  • Logistics - places they need to know, equipment, login details
  • Who they need to meet
  • The culture, those unwritten rules and “how things work here”
  • The tools they need, both physical and digital, even the information they need
  • Training that may need to be organised

Ask yourself what they should know and what they should be achieving by the time they’ve been in the role for 6 months, then work backwards to how they are going know that and what they need to enable them to achieve.

Set clear expectations, targets or goals - people are not mind readers and cannot achieve if they don’t know what they’re trying to achieve. This should be routine, something that is ongoing and done throughout the organisation and with everyone. Have regular one to one meetings, they don’t need to be long or have huge forms to fill in. Regular one to one meetings ensure each individual knows they have a time to raise concerns, discuss what’s on their mind and refocus on the goals. Managers should use this time to ensure people are on track and raise concerns, in most cases issues will be resolved quickly and without any need to escalate.

If following those regular meetings the same issues are coming up, they’re not being resolved and expectations are not being met - this is the time to start asking whether this person is right for the role and in a few cases this might result in a dismissal.

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