Why probationary periods are pointless

I expect a few of you who are HR experts to potentially disagree with my views on this, but I come at this from an angle of what actual purpose they serve in the current climate rather than any legal stance.

This comes off the back of a couple of discussions this week regarding employees and said review process.  Do they serve the employee?  Do they serve the employer?  I am unsure if they actually serve either.

You see, a probationary period is intended to be a trial of skills and attitude, usually for three months, at which point the employee under the spotlight is given the proverbial thumbs up to proceed with their employment satisfactory that they have passed the test.

In cases, this can create a scenario where the employee acts differently to normal (works harder, longer, is nicer etc) to showcase their worth before passing and often reverting to who they actually are.  In some cases, not good enough.

Is the probationary period there as a back-up to the interview process not being done thoroughly enough?  I suspect so.

Whilst loyalty is a value that is high on my list, I don’t believe that being loyal when an employee isn’t cutting the mustard serves either party.  If somebody isn’t stepping up after say a month (presuming you have given them the induction, training, tools, coaching etc.) and you know deep down that they aren’t going to fit in, waiting another two months is pointless.  It costs time, energy and money you can’t afford to lose.

Equally, if they are stepping up and showing real promise (and you believe it is genuine and sustainable), what’s the point of putting them through the agony of waiting to see if they have passed?

A client of mine recently passed a new employee five weeks into their three month period and they are still going strong.

The amount of times I hear, “we have extended their probationary period for another three months” is astounding.  That’s like saying, “I know you aren’t right but I’m going to delay the inevitable for another quarter”.  Doh!

Usually it is as much about the leader or line manager not inducting, coaching and nurturing them enough due to workload, lack of know how etc.

If an employee isn’t a good fit, legally it’s pretty easy to exit them within the first 24 months and so, a three month window serves little purpose in my view.  Now, I am NOT advocating you use this to compensate for sloppy leadership and poor recruitment practices at all.

What I DO advocate is the following:

  • Be more thorough with the recruitment process to make sure you are more certain of their suitability (hire slowly)
  • Consider trial days/ half days (paid) where they spend time with the team to understand, gel and showcase themselves before an offer is made
  • Use values as part of the interview process, ahead of technical skills
  • Induct them fully across the values, culture, departments and expectations of the business
  • Have 1-2-1 reviews weekly to discuss issues, performance, targets and expectations
  • Offer them a buddy or mentor to support them
  • If you are certain they aren’t right, get rid (fire quickly)
  • As part of your talent strategy review, if you have probationary periods, reflect on what purpose they serve, whether the length is suitable and how you can modify what you are doing to be a better fit for both parties.  Don’t stick with what you are doing because you’ve always done it that way.

Your time, energy and effort needs to be focussed 100% on growth in 2023, not diluted by dealing with team issues that will distract you.

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