Probation periods – what’s the point?

I was motivated to write this blog by a discussion on the CIPD LinkedIn Group about usage of probation periods. I have a rule of three approach to HR process; they either have to be required by law (or a really sound policy), add some value or the output needs to be used by someone. Otherwise I fail to see the point in doing them.

Probation periods seem to have an almost automatic inclusion in most contracts of employment. But what value do they actually add? In an ideal world, the probation period should be an opportunity (two way) for an employee to settle into an organisation, receive training in their new role, and most importantly receive regular feedback on their performance. If it doesn’t work out then the probation period is ended and so is the employment relationship. Although they should be two way, in reality the main objective of a probation period is to allow employers to part company with someone easily and quickly that haven’t lived up to the performance expectation.

Now I could say that this misses the point, and that you should be focusing on getting your recruitment processes in a better shape so you don’t get your hiring decisions wrong, but we all know that recruitment and selection isn’t perfect.

If the key aim of a probation period is exiting non-performers, then this can be done anyway. There are now two years before an unfair dismissal claim can be made in the employment tribunal. I understand the need to have a quick process to exit someone if it’s not working out. Instead of having a bureaucratic probation period, you can just build a shorter process into your employment policies for people in the early periods of employment. If you want to, make it that you only have two stages in your disciplinary or capability process during the first year of employment.

I’ve heard people say that the probation period focuses someone on performing properly in their role. If you need a three month time period hanging over someone to get them to put in the effort when they have just been offered a new job, then I’m thinking you hired someone with the wrong attitude.

If I think about what managing probation periods involve in terms of administration. Monitoring the dates, sending forms to line managers, checking whether they have been actioned, chasing managers again, sending letters to employees saying you have or haven’t passed, extensions and more on-going monitoring. Couldn’t you really be doing something else that adds more value to your business?

Now in reality, some managers are good at managing new starters this and some are bad. Some managers will set objectives, give and receive feedback, put effort into induction and provide training. Some managers will throw their new team member in at the deep end and do nothing at all. Herein lies my second point: having a formal probation period makes no difference one way of another. If a manager doesn’t manage well they will just ignore your reminders or give poor feedback. They then need tackling through other means.

My final argument on why you shouldn’t have a probation period. Think about it from an employer brand perspective; you are effectively saying to a candidate we don’t need to give you a trial. We think you’re great and we want you to join us without any suggestion we might exit you in three months……………..

So. Now I just have to persuade the rest of the HR team.

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