Most employers have a probationary period built into employment contracts, usually three or six months. It’s a time to assess the performance of new staff, monitor them, give them a good induction, provide them with training and support to learn their new job, and to build relationships with key people.
Usually towards the end of probation a manager will conduct a review with the new team member, and a decision will be made to confirm employment, terminate through failed probation, or to extend it, if there have been concerns about performance.
But what should you do if you have a new staff member on probation during the coronavirus crisis, and they are either on furlough completely, or are perhaps working from home? How can you possibly make a decision about whether to pass probation or not in such difficult circumstances? If you’re not ready to make a decision you will probably want to extend it, but are you allowed to extend it if there isn’t evidence of poor performance as such?
The first thing to remember is that there is no legal framework for probationary periods in employment; they are purely a contractual thing between employer and employee. Employment rights are broadly accrued purely by length of service, with some rights applying from day one, and some coming in once two years have passed.
So whether someone has passed their probationary period or not doesn’t affect their employment rights at all. What it may affect is internal things, such as entitlement to benefits, or an increased notice period.
The fact that it is purely a contractual thing rather than any kind of legal entitlement means that when deciding what to do about a probationary period during lockdown, you need to check internal policies and the contract of employment. Normally there will be provision to extend probation, and what you will need to do is communicate to the employee that this is what is happening, and why.
It’s crucial to emphasise that this is not a negative thing – you have not been able to provide the usual induction and support during the probationary period, and you want to ensure the employee has a good opportunity to perform well and to give evidence of good performance. So the extension is not a negative thing, it is for the benefit of both parties.
Reassure your team member, and discuss with them how you can both work together during the extended period to support them and to get to a position where a firm decision can be made at the end of the extension. Have a set period for the extension, rather than doing it indefinitely, and then review again towards the end.
If you’d to speak to someone further about probationary periods during the current coronavirus crisis, do get in touch.