When you have spent a lot of time and money in your hiring process to find the right candidate for a role, you want to be sure that the person you have chosen will actually be able to do the job in the right way.
Recruitment is an important part of any business model, and in these times where The Great Resignation is seeing more positions needing to be filled, HR and recruitment are looking for the best people in different ways.
Of course, using different tools in recruitment like Applicant Tracking Systems and pre-employment testing of aptitudes, skills, and competencies, and even things like algorithmically accurate gamified tests can make a difference in the quality of hiring, but how can you be sure that the person who tested and interviewed well will actually be able to do the job?
This is where a probation period can make a difference in hiring outcomes.
What is a probation period?
In the simplest terms, a probation period is essentially a trial period. These usually take place at the beginning of the employment, and during this time the new employee has the opportunity to demonstrate that they are the right person for the job, while the employer can see whether the employee is able to cope with the workload and can perform their duties.
For both parties, the probation period acts as a ‘real life’ decision maker for important things like culture fit - the employee has just as much right to terminate the employment relationship in this period if they feel the role actually isn’t right for them.
Why is a probation period important?
With so much cost and time involved in recruitment, ensuring that the right person is handed an employment contract is of the utmost importance - and if it is not the right person, it can be an expensive and time-consuming mistake.
The probation period allows the employee to get a feel for the role and what is expected, and the employer to see how well the employee can deal with the requirements of the role, without complications such as long notice periods for dismissal.
A well-organized and considered probation period is a defined length of time with specific outcomes that need to be reached, and by making the employee and the employer equally responsible for achieving this, the probation period can work as an effective part of the long-term recruitment process.
How long should a probation period be?
In general, probation periods are measured in months. Some companies only need a shorter period; usually for entry-level roles. Others will require much longer to ensure that every aspect of the role is covered and situations can be dealt with whenever they arrive.
Typically, a probation period will last three months, six months, or 12 months. If the role is for a zero-hours contract it might be lengthened, or for something temporary this might be reduced considerably.
However long the probation period you want to use is, it needs to be defined and understood by the employee. They need to know how long they will be on probation for, what the goals or performance indicators that they will be measured against are, and what the potential outcomes will be. They will also need to know how they will be managed during the probation period.
How to manage employees on probation
To make the most of a probation period, it is important to ensure that the expectations of both the employer and the employee are described and managed from the beginning.
The employee should know how long they will be on probation for, and what this means for them in terms of their new role. In some businesses, an employee on probation might be on a lesser salary, for example, and they usually won't be protected by a contract in the same way that a permanent member of staff will.
They also need to know what they need to demonstrate throughout the probation period to ‘pass’ and become a permanent member of the team. The goals might be quite specific, like achieving a certain number of sales or generating a specific amount of revenue, or they might be more general like getting good feedback from immediate supervisors and other employees.
The probation period should run concurrently with a well-executed induction and onboarding process, giving the new employee the best chance of being able to perform their tasks effectively and efficiently. During the onboarding, employees should be supported in getting introduced to other people in the company, completing relevant paperwork, completing important training and getting used to the day-to-day business.
You will also need to make time for feedback during the probation, to check that everything is on track and to deal with any issues that arise. Although there will be a review at the end of the probation period to decide on next steps, by organizing regulated meetings to discuss the process HR can manage performance in a much more effective way.
During this feedback period, if any issues with competence, conduct, or performance are highlighted you will be able to deal with them in the most appropriate way. This might mean just arranging some additional training, having an informal chat, or deciding on dismissal.
At the end of the agreed probation period, a performance review should be completed to ensure that the employee has met all the set goals - and in that case, a permanent contract is usually the next step.
If things have not progressed in the right way, then there are other options. Some businesses might extend the probation period with renewed goals to achieve, giving the employee more of a chance to improve and demonstrate their skills. However, if it is decided that the employee is just not right for the role, then the employment can be terminated.
For the employee, having set goals and achievements gives them something to focus on through their probation period alongside all the new information that they will be taking in from the induction process - and they can use this time to decide if the role and the business is the right fit for them too. If not, they have just as much right to leave without penalty or consequences.
Employee rights during probation
While one of the main reasons a probation period is used is as a trial without a contract (and therefore less notice needed for termination on either side), employees on probation do have some rights.
Employees on probation might not be eligible to take action for unlawful dismissal (usually have to be working under contract for at least two years for that to be relevant), they are protected from unlawful discrimination and unfair dismissal, specifically for any grounds that could be considered as ‘automatically unfair’. This includes protected characteristics like race or gender, but also things like pregnancy or maternity leave.
When it comes to dealing with disciplinary action during a probation period, any action taken must be the result of a thorough investigation and undertaken in a way that is fair and measurable.
If the end result of the probationary period is dismissal, then the employee should be given feedback as to why along with the opportunity to respond with their own feedback.
Pros and cons of employee probation
There are pros and cons for employee probation that need to be considered.
- Saves money and time: Effective recruitment paired with a solid induction process and a well-planned probation period will reduce the risk of a bad hire, and probation periods in particular can mean less salary paid, and no problems with pensions etc.
- Good for employees: It is an employee market these days, and candidates can afford to be choosy about the environments they work in. The probation period gives the candidate the opportunity to actually do the job and be part of the culture without being tied into a contract.
- Safer for employers: In a similar way, the probation period allows employers to evaluate the potential employee for their ability to apply their knowledge, and skills in the workplace.
- Risk to reputation: Some candidates might not want to apply for a role with a probation period, especially if that is subject to a lesser salary.
- Legal risk: While probation periods are not subject to employment law, unclear policies and discriminatory policies could still land your business in hot water legally.
- Employees can feel undervalued: This might be more relevant for higher-level roles, but the idea of going through a probationary period might make a potential employee feel that their skills are not enough.
While there are some downsides to having a probation period as part of the onboarding process, it should be an integral part of recruitment for pretty much every business.
To get the probation period right it should be defined and measurable, but when it is correct the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls.
Through probation periods employers can evaluate the real-time skills and attributes of candidates, see how their values align with the business, and that they can complete the day-to-day tasks. It allows an opportunity for any problems to come out early, so they can be dealt with appropriately - whether through further training or dismissal.