Why the workplace probation period needs a new name

The most misunderstood HR framework has to be the probation period.

Have you ever sat down and dissected how your organisation manages probation? Most employers have a probation period in place, but rarely are they managed correctly or even managed at all.

Sometimes they are used as an escape clause. Often, they are a back-up plan in case you have recruited badly or even as a back-up plan to protect employers from those professional interviewees that always seem to talk their way into new roles even when grossly under-qualified.

I think we all agree that probation periods can be one of our last lines of defence. Employing the wrong people is extremely expensive and can damage delicate cultural ecosystems.

However, probation frameworks are not solely there to protect our businesses from wrong decisions. When designed and used proactively, they can be one of the most powerful management tools in our people management kit bags.

My top five tips to get the most out of a probation framework:

  1. Meet regularly. Not doing this is probably the most common mistake employers make. We are all busy keeping the balls in the air. Before you know it the probation period has run its course and you have not spent enough time with your new employee. How could you possibly know if they are the adding value or even enjoying the role? Set a clear plan from day one and meet regularly.
  1. Training. Use the probation period to train your new staff members and monitor their progress. The aim of every probation period should be to have the new employee ready to hit the ground running and be a valuable, productive employee. Train and monitor their progress. Are they picking up the concepts you expected? Make sure you train your new staff members during the probation period so you are comfortable they have the ability to excel in the role.
  1. Two way feedback. Find out what the new employee thinks of their new role – is it what they expected? What do they need to better perform their role? Do they need a better induction or more training to better perform their role? By all means provide feedback, but don’t forget to gather this intel and ask them questions.
  1. Extend it. If you are not 100% sure your new employee is the right fit for your culture and going to provide you with a return on your human capital investment, don’t sign off on the probation. If you have been traveling or have not spent enough time with the new employee then extend it. Do not guess and do not assume that no news is good news. Hiring and training employees is time consuming and expensive; if you are not comfortable or you have a bad gut feel then extend their probation.
  1. Tell your story: New employees are impressionable and you want this learning period to be a positive experience. You need to tell new employees your story. What is the history and what events have affected the businesses evolution? What is the vision, the mission and the values and why are they so important? You want everyone on the bus and singing from the same hymn book. The quicker a new employee understands ‘the story’ the more valuable they are to your team, so why not make sure this education provided during the probation period?

Carefully designed and executed, probation frameworks will save you money and ensure you get a return on your human capital investment in the shortest possible period. The last line of defense maybe but don’t treat them as a safety net.

Just having a probation period is not enough and the length of a probation period is somewhat irrelevant. Take away the guess work and be proactive with your new staff members – everyone will benefit!

And I suggest you ignore the word probation, it is misleading. Let’s re-name this essential HR framework ‘the proactive training and feedback period’ and take control of our new hires from day one.

Sue-Ellen Watts is the founder and director of  wattsnext, specialists in HR, recruitment, compliance and people performance.


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