Probationary periods are used by employers of all sizes for new recruits, usually for either three or six months. They can be extremely valuable if used well, bringing structure to the early days of a new hire’s employment, and prompting decisions about whether there is a good fit.
But there is a growing movement in favour of ditching probationary periods altogether, and it is worth giving some thought to whether it would be sensible to do the same in your business.
Whilst probationary periods can be a useful management tool, there are negative connotations. The whole sense of taking part in a six month ‘test’ doesn’t feel a very positive experience, being under scrutiny and having your employment almost held over your head, while someone assesses whether you might pass or fail. Even the “pass or fail” terminology makes the whole thing feel more stressful than it needs to be.
The early period of employment should be about building a relationship and encouraging and developing good performance, rather than treating it as an extension of the job interview.
But what are the implications of scrapping it? Probationary periods have no legal standing at all. They are purely contractual between the employer and employee. There are no additional legal rights granted to the employee upon passing a probationary period, and ordinarily, the main, or only, difference between being in a probationary period and having passed it, is that a longer contractual notice period often applies. Some employers also withhold some contractual benefits until probation has been passed.
This means that in the event the employer decides not to continue with the employment, it is no easier to terminate whether there is a probationary period or not. The advantages of a probationary period can therefore potentially be replicated without a probationary period in place. Notice periods can be scheduled to change at, say, the six month mark, and benefits can be withheld if desired.
A good structure can be developed to manage and encourage performance in the early period of employment, without calling it “probation”, and with a more positive-feeling focus and energy.
What is absolutely essential is that, if you choose to scrap the probationary period, you don’t replace it with nothing. It’s vital to have some structure in place for managing the early months of employment, to ensure everything possible is done to support the employee achieving the standard of performance you need. You need managers who are well-trained and proactive in supporting and developing team members, and a system of regular meetings and a tailored induction programme.
Some managers might be more inclined to actually do the important stuff if it is framed as a probationary period, and that’s ok. In short, it’s the substance and essence of a good initial few months of the employment relationship that matter, and those are the same whether you call it probation and operate a pass or fail system, or whether you ditch that terminology altogether.
If you’d like some help managing probation in your business, or support in moving to an alternative system of early support and performance management, do get in touch.