How to Manage a Probationary Period Effectively
Helping People Get up to Speed
New manager Lena has recently recruited Dialla, who is on a three-month probationary period. Two and a half months in, and Lena's not sure that she made the right decision.
Dialla is often late into work, and she still hasn't got to grips with the team's processes and ways of working. And, while Dialla has a great "can do"' attitude, Lena wonders why she isn't up to speed yet.
Lena hasn't yet raised her concerns with Dialla, but she knows that she needs to soon. Perhaps Dialla has a genuine reason for her lateness, or doesn't have the right equipment to do her job properly.
In this article, we'll explore why it's important to address issues early in the probation process, and how to get the most from your new starter.
Why Probation Matters
Most companies ask new starters, or those in newly promoted positions, to work a probationary period. This is a fixed amount of time, usually between one and six months, during which managers decide whether the team member has the right skills, attitude and behavior to do the job. It also gives joiners the chance to assess whether the role lives up to their expectations and ambitions.
A key feature of probation for new starters is that either party can terminate the employment with little or no notice during the agreed period. So, it is possible for your team member to "fail" his or her probation. Equally, he can simply decide that he doesn't want to complete it, and leave.
Employees may have certain statutory protections, however. For example, in the U.S., U.K. and other countries, a person cannot be dismissed because of her race, religion, disability, or other illegal discriminatory ground.
In the U.S., probation can also be used to address any failings in an existing team member's performance. For example, if one of your people consistently submits inaccurate or incomplete reports, you can impose a probationary period, during which you'd work with him to resolve the problem. If his performance doesn't improve, you will need to consider other options, including dismissal.
The Benefits of a Probation Period
Probationary periods encourage managers to assess whether new starters can perform at the required level. Your recruitment process may be thorough, but you can only be sure that someone has the right skills and attitude once she has started. So, an equally robust approach to probation tests whether your decision was the right one.
Common Pitfalls of Probationary Periods
Managers don't always deal with probation periods well! A common pitfall is to avoid confronting issues, which can lead to bigger problems in the long run.
Other challenges include not setting clear goals, or failing to provide proper job descriptions. And it can be tempting to be too quick to judge, and to compare a new colleague's performance to previous team members' work, rather than treating people as individuals.
Employees on probation usually have different contractual terms and conditions from those in permanent employment. For example, their notice periods are often shorter. But they'll still have statutory employment rights.
Every country's legislation is different, so always follow best practice. For example, in the U.S., most employees are deemed to work "at will." This means that, even outside of a probationary period, employment can be terminated without notice – subject to certain protections, including the ones described earlier.
Always seek the advice of an employment or HR specialist before you fire an employee, to be sure that you are behaving fairly, within the law, and in line with your organization's policies.
How to Manage Probation Periods Effectively
Common reasons why people fail their probation periods include poor performance, attendance and punctuality. While you can't guarantee success with every hire, you can put measures in place to improve your new starter's chances. Here are six steps that you can take to do this:
1. Build and Encourage Positive Relationships
Your new starter may be nervous about his probation. He may feel like he is "on trial" (in a criminal, rather than a supportive sense!) and that any mistakes could cost him his job. So, it's important to make him feel welcome, engaged and motivated.
An effective induction program can go a long way toward successfully integrating him into your organization, and becoming a productive, confident team member. Simple things like introducing him to his colleagues and showing him around the office can reduce any sense of isolation, and provide reassurance that he is in a supportive environment.
2. Establish Goals and Manage Expectations
First impressions count, so outline what you expect from the start. On your new starter's first day, give her a copy of her job description, and talk in detail about her responsibilities and the behaviors that you expect. Make sure that the information is clear and up to date, and that she understands the role's requirements.
Also, explain your organization's mission and vision, and what it stands for. You can give her a sense of purpose by demonstrating how her role aligns with overall organizational goals. Our article, Using OKRs, can help you to do this.
You might want to set some short-term SMART objectives at this stage, and to explain how you'll evaluate performance and measure success for each one. People learn at different rates, depending on their experience and capability, so be prepared to adjust your expectations.
Explore any skills gaps together, and consider appropriate training and supervisory support to help her to meet the required standard. Be open about how you will approach any problems, and how often you will review her progress. You're more likely to get her buy-in if you manage her expectations from the start.
3. Schedule Regular One-on-One Meetings
After your kickoff meeting, schedule regular one-on-ones to track your new starter's progress. These should be formal, structured reviews to discuss goals, to assess knowledge and skills, and to set further objectives.
Have his job description and objectives to hand for easy reference, and make notes beforehand to aid your discussion. Consider using a probation review form to record meeting outcomes each time. You might include questions for your new team member to ask himself, such as:
- What am I doing well?
- Are there areas of my performance that I can improve?
- Which parts of my role do I enjoy most/least?
If you follow a standard format, you can ensure that you treat all your new starters the same. And having a written record can remind both parties of the conversation, and act as a useful reference document for future meetings.
Always follow up in writing after your meetings, and ask your starter to sign off any agreed actions. These documents will help you to prepare for her final probation review.
4. Provide Regular Feedback
As well as structured one-on-ones, you can schedule more informal sessions to give and receive feedback. These meetings give you the opportunity to recognize your team member's efforts, to identify specific achievements, and to celebrate progress.
Equally, highlight any shortcomings or issues, and specify where you'd like to see improvement. Remain objective, stick to the facts, and provide specific examples of the behaviors that you want to discourage.
It can be difficult for a new starter to judge how she's doing, so while she'll likely value your constructive criticism, she may be surprised or confused by negative feedback.
5. Address Issues Promptly
Don't let problems fester. Address them as and when they arise, and preferably face to face.
Be clear about the change you want to see, and that successful completion of the probationary period is dependent upon it. But positive language is crucial, too, to keep him motivated. For example, say, "Let's see if we can improve…" rather than, "You've failed to…."
And always give him a chance to respond to your comments, especially if you've provided some negative feedback. He may have valid reasons for poor attendance (a medical condition, for example), punctuality (caregiving), or performance (lack of knowledge), that you might be unaware of.
Look at his situation together and agree a plan of action to help him to be more reliable and productive. Alternatively, adjust his targets, either by making them more attainable or more challenging, depending on the circumstances. This will likely boost his confidence and engagement, too.
Make sure that you give him time to improve, and focus on ways to support him. Some extra coaching or formal training might be all he needs, especially if he's capable and has the right attitude. Involve other team members in his training, as this will also help him to feel part of the group.
Probationary periods also give people the opportunity to decide whether their jobs are right for them. A satisfied team member is more likely to be productive, so encourage him to tell you how he feels.
He may be reluctant to raise concerns at first, so build rapport and show you're there to support him. Let him know that you operate an open-door policy, and that you'll remedy any issues within your control.
6. Pass, Fail or Extend
If all goes well, you'll be pleased with your team member's performance at the end of her probation, and you can confirm her permanent appointment in person and writing.
If you're not satisfied, however, you might consider extending her probation. Only do so in exceptional circumstances, and if you believe that she can make the necessary improvements within this extra time. Talk to your HR department before doing this.
Be aware that an extended probation can put extra pressure on your team member, and may increase stress. So, while you need to be clear about what changes or improvements you expect, and how you'll measure them, emphasize that you will support her to the best of your ability.
Letting her go is a last resort, once you've exhausted all other options. If you choose this route, use the written evidence you've gathered during her probation. Delivering bad news is never easy, so be kind but truthful.
A probationary period is a fixed amount of time at the beginning of a person's employment that gives both the employer and the new starter the chance to assess whether the organization, the role, and the individual are a "good fit."
If they are, then all well and good! Otherwise, consider what actions you can take to resolve any issues. Alternatively, either party can terminate the employment. That's a situation that everyone hopes to avoid, so follow these five steps for managing the probation process effectively:
- Establish goals and manage expectations.
- Schedule regular one-on-one meetings.
- Provide regular feedback.
- Address issues.
- Pass, fail or extend.