Many organisations include a probation period in their contracts of employment. A probation period is similar to a trial period in employment and is a good way for organisations to assess the overall suitability of a new starter for the post they were recruited for. It also provides an opportunity for the new employee themselves to decide if the position is right for them. When used correctly, probation periods allow an organisation to evaluate a new employee’s performance, capability and behaviour over their first few months in post, whilst also providing a useful mechanism to address any areas where the employee is failing to meet expectations.
How long should a probation period last?
The length of the probation period will largely depend on the scope and complexity of the post. A job requiring a high level of skill and competence is likely to require a longer probation period than a job requiring less skills and experience. Typically, probation periods last anywhere between 3 and 6 months but it’s important to provide enough time for the new employee to learn the requirements for the role, undertake any required training and respond to feedback provided.
For clarity, the offer of employment letter and contract should stipulate that the offer is subject to satisfactory completion of a probation period and specify the length of this period. The new employee should be notified of how their performance will be monitored over this period and made aware that the probation period may be extended where required. It is also essential that any new member of staff undergoes a comprehensive onboarding and induction process on joining a new organisation (take a look at our onboarding blog for some best practice on this).
Changes to terms and conditions
Some organisations choose to withhold certain contractual benefits during a probation period, such as access to company sick pay, bonus schemes, private healthcare etc. It is also common for a reduced notice period during probation so that, if an employee is not right for the business, their employment can be terminated more quickly. Whilst certain contractual benefits can be withheld during probation, an employer cannot withhold statutory requirements such as National Minimum Wage and Statutory Sick Pay.
The probation process
At the outset, the new employee should be made aware of the requirements for their new job role with a clear job description. They should also be made aware of things that do not always feature on job descriptions such as an overview of the business as well as any company values or behaviours that are expected of all staff. Some organisations set some short-term objectives for the new employee to work towards during their probation which can work well. If you plan to set some short-term objectives, do bear in mind that the employee will need time to settle in and get themselves up to speed with how things are done.
Regular review meetings
It’s important to hold regular review meetings with the new employee. This allows them to ask any questions they may have and also allows you, as an employer, to provide encouragement and support as well as address any concerns you may have with their performance or capability. Likewise, review meetings are also an ideal opportunity to let the new employee know what they are doing well and provide recognition for this. The frequency of these meetings will depend on the role and how individual employees are performing. If you notice that a new employee is not performing to the required standard or appears to be struggling in their role, review meetings can allow you to offer support and/or additional coaching or training to help the employee reach the standard expected. If performance issues are identified, be clear on what the issue is and allow the employee a set timeframe to meet the standard required. It’s a good idea to keep records of all review meetings and actions agreed. In cases where performance improvement is required, it can be useful to follow up any meeting with an email summarising what was agreed so that the employee has a clear understanding of what is required of them.
In some cases where the end of a probation period is looming and the employee has not reached the required standard of performance, but you recognise that there is potential for improvement, the organisation can choose to extend the probation period. The right to extend probation should be set out in the contract of employment. If choosing to extend probation, this should be done before the original probationary period would have ended and the employee should be notified of reasons for the probation extension and how long the period is being extended for.
Outcome of probation
It’s essential that a decision is made at the end of a probationary period. If the period is left to lapse with no decision appearing to have been made, the employee will be considered to have passed their probation period by default. At the end of the probationary period, you must decide whether the employee has successfully passed their probation period and should be confirmed in post, or if they have not met requirements. A probation review meeting should be held with the employee at the end of the probationary period, and they should be notified in writing of the outcome of the process.
If they have passed their probationary period, they should be notified of this in writing along with their new notice period and how to access any additional benefits that were withheld during probation. Alternatively, if the employee has failed to reach the standards required, they should be notified of this and given the opportunity to respond. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to them as you will have been discussing any shortcomings during the regular review meetings. There may be a good reason why they have struggled to meet your expectations. In most cases, however, the outcome of a failed probation will be a dismissal. This should be confirmed in writing and the employee in question should be provided with any contractual or statutory notice along with outstanding holiday pay.
If your business could do with some assistance with implementing or managing probationary periods effectively, the HR Overload team is here to help. Please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.