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Probation Period Guide: How to use probation periods

The best probations periods balance trust, initiation and serving as an extended job interview. Here’s how you can get the most out of them.

A probation period is the stretch of time after an employee starts a new role during which they can quit or be fired with reduced notice. Functionally, they operate as an extended job interview, giving you a chance to see and evaluate the most promising candidate for a position in the actual setting that you hired them for.

You get to see them working, you get to see their faults and their brilliance in action. The probation period is the best way of being sure that an individual is the right fit for your organisation.

But how long should a probation period be?

At Charlie HR, the current practice is to have a 3 month probation period. This was arrived at through trial and error as there are risks involved with a probation period being both too short and too long.

When a probation period is too short:

The new hire will not have enough time to develop and feel that they understand the company. It will be a pressure-filled few weeks, the on-boarding process will seem rushed and you won’t get to see the employee working comfortably. It is likely you will get an unrealistic impression of them.

Under too much stress, they might buckle and under-perform. Conversely, relishing the pressure they may try harder than usual over a short period of time, which isn't a fair test of how this relationship will play out in the future. In either situation, the probation period will have failed to serve its purpose as an extended job interview and you will risk hiring the wrong the person or losing the perfect employee.

When a probation period is too long:

Spread out over too long a stretch of time, an employment probation period will feel more like performance review rather than a fair initiation. A six month probation period will be perceived as a lack of trust and could risk employees not giving their all. It is hard for someone to be working honestly and comfortably if they don’t feel like the company is going to invest in them in the way that they have invested in the company by taking the job in the first place.

What makes a good probation period?

Clear expectations:

The new starter must know what they have to achieve in order for them to pass their probation. Have their goals set out in writing. Both the employer and the employee need to be on the same page. There’s nothing worse than the employee not being offered the job long-term because they failed to hit standards that they were unaware of.

Good and frequent feedback:

This allows the new employee to get a sense of how well they are doing and gives them the opportunity to correct any errors early on. It gives them the opportunity to either improve their performance and pass their probation or to get a sense that they might not be successful, without any surprises later on.

Constant feedback also allows the expectations to remain within sight and forces the employee to engage with their team. In turn, this will give you a better sense of their fit within the general company culture. As with all employees, feedback is a great way of encouraging development. Since every employee should be viewed as an important investment, there is no harm in getting this started right away.

What happens at the end of a well-managed probation period?

It is at your discretion to hire or dismiss the employee. But do try and get the right stakeholders involved in giving them feedback, this could be line managers and colleagues for junior employees or even directors and investors if it’s an important senior hire.

If you are still unsure, then there is no harm in extending the 90 day probation period by another couple of weeks or a month. Just be upfront and clear and let the employee know that you believe in them and want to give them more time to succeed. So long as you provide feedback and reiterate or redefine expectations, there’s no harm in delaying such a vital decision and suggesting a probation period extension—especially if you’re running a small business that is stretched for resources and where every employee has a strong impact on the company as a whole.

Once you’ve made your decision, you should hold a formal meeting with the employee towards the end of the probation period. Start it off by letting them know what your decision is. This makes it easier for everybody and saves the employee from having to second-guess your intentions.

Regardless of whether you have chosen to pass or reject them, you should then ask the employee for reflections on the previous 3 months and then share feedback with them from across the team. Make sure to follow up in writing, copying in the relevant stakeholders. It’s an important decision and should always be formalised.

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