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Guide to managing probationary periods

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The purpose of this guide is to assist line managers in understanding the processes involved in managing probationary periods, as well as to explain the law and good practise in this area.
 
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What is a Guide to managing probationary periods?

The purpose of this Guide to managing probationary periods is to provide you with a flexible and customisable document to serve as a robust and effective starting point for you.

By using our Guide to managing probationary periods, you can streamline your process, maintain consistency and accuracy, and save time, and it can be easily adapted to fit your specific scenario.

Guide to managing probationary periods
guide to managing probationary periods

Guide to managing probationary periods


The aim of probation

A probationary period is a period of trial for a new employee. It enables both the line manager and the employee to objectively assess whether the new employee is suitable for the role, taking into account the individual's overall capability, skills, performance, and general behaviour in relation to the job in question.

There is a strong case to be made that using probationary periods increases the likelihood that new employees will succeed in their jobs. In the absence of an effective probationary review process, an employee who is unsuitable for the job may be retained indefinitely.

Line managers should therefore identify and address any unsatisfactory performance or behaviour during the probationary period.

It is much easier for line managers to address issues as they arise. If they allow them to continue, the problems are likely to be exacerbated.

It is also preferable for employees to receive immediate feedback rather than remain unaware of their manager's unhappiness. They will have a fair chance to improve their performance or change their behaviour if they receive feedback.

Length of probationary periods

There is no standard probation period because the length of time required to objectively assess a new employee's performance depends on the complexity and seniority of the job.

A probationary period is typically three months for unskilled, clerical, or junior administrative or technical positions, and six months for management, supervisory, professional, or senior technical positions.

A probationary period should be long enough to allow the employee to settle in and learn the essentials of the job. It should also be long enough for the manager to determine whether or not the employee is capable of meeting the job requirements. However, the probationary period should not be any longer than is necessary to achieve these goals.

At the time of recruitment, the period of probation applicable to each individual, as well as the terms that apply during probation, should be clearly defined and recorded.

Legal status of probationary periods

Employers are not required by law to use probationary periods when recruiting new employees.

Despite the lack of a legal requirement to use probationary periods, they are an extremely useful management tool when properly structured and implemented.

Many statutory rights require the employee to have been continuously employed for a specific period of time. For example, the right to file an unfair dismissal claim requires the employee to have at least two years of continuous service.

However, probationary periods have no legal significance, so the presence of one does not affect a new employee's length of service or statutory employment rights.

Those statutory rights that are contingent on a minimum period of service will be calculated based on the length of service from the employee's original start date, not from the end of the probationary period.

It is critical that all new employees understand that their employment may be terminated if they do not meet the required performance standards within the specified probationary period.

Assuming the employee's probationary period is shorter than the qualifying period of service required to bring an unfair dismissal claim, a new employee dismissed at the end of the probationary period due to unsatisfactory performance will have no claim against the employer.

Probation period programme structure

During the probationary period of a new employee, the line manager should follow a formal structured procedure for assessing and reviewing the employee's performance, capability, and suitability for the role.

It will be the manager's responsibility to structure the programme so that both parties understand what to expect.

The following items should be included in the programme:

  • Regular monitoring of the new employee's performance through progress meetings.
  • Early identification and discussion of any problem areas.
  • Regular constructive feedback.
  • Supervisory support and guidance.
  • Provision of any necessary training and coaching.

Although the company's HR department or an external HR consultant may be available to provide support and guidance as needed throughout the programme, the new employee's line manager will be in control of all of these actions.

If a probationary period is to be effective, it must be properly planned. The programme must also be agreed upon with the new employee, who must understand what is expected of him or her. This information will consist of:

    • Job outputs that are specific, i.e. what the new employee is expected to accomplish during or by the end of the probationary period.
    • The performance standards that are expected in relation to the job duties.
    • The standards or measurements used to evaluate an employee's performance.
    • Any development activities that have been agreed upon.
    • A description of any relevant standards of behaviour, such as those relating to client and colleague liaison.

If the employee is unsure about any of these points, they may be uncommitted to the programme.

 

Training plan

A training plan is frequently included as part of a probationary period.

A training plan is intended to outline everything that the employee needs to learn in order to perform the role effectively. A training programme might include:

  • Specific job responsibilities.
  • Procedures for the organisation, such as health and safety or computer use.
  • Workplace practises in general.
  • Product and/or technical expertise.
  • Computer abilities.

The training should be organised in stages so that the employee can progress toward competent performance by the end of the probationary period.

 

Reviewiing progress

Regular progress meetings between the line manager and the employee should be part of the probation process. These should be performed at least once a month.

Throughout the probation period, monthly meetings will allow the employee's performance and progress to be monitored on a "little and often" basis. Less frequent meetings may result in important issues being overlooked or performance issues being resolved slowly.

Planning progress meetings

At the start of the employee's employment, progress meetings should be planned and scheduled. The line manager will be responsible for ensuring that all probationary reviews are completed on time.

The manager should strive to accomplish the following at each meeting:

    • Highlight areas where the employee excels.
    • Explain clearly and precisely any areas where the employee is falling short of the required standards.
    • Investigate the possible causes of any failure to meet the required standards.
    • Discuss and agree on whether any additional training or coaching is required.
    • Discuss any other pertinent issues, such as timekeeping, attendance, general behaviour, or attitude.
    • Invite the employee to provide feedback on issues such as how well he or she has integrated into the department and how well he or she gets along with colleagues.
    • Allow the employee to ask questions or express concerns about any aspect of his or her job.

It is critical that the manager does not limit the progress meetings to discussions of problem areas, but also identifies and comments on the new employee's positive outcomes.

Managers should be prepared to offer all possible assistance to their new employees in order to give them a fair chance to become fully integrated and productive employees in the long run.

Action plans

The manager should agree on an action plan with the employee at the end of each progress meeting so that his or her progress can be tracked over the next few weeks.

The action plan should be documented, stating what should be done, by whom, how, and when. As a result, the employee will be aware of what is expected of him or her by the next review.

Conducting progress meetings

The monthly progress meetings should be a two-way process that allows both the manager and the employee to discuss progress one-on-one and confidentially.

If there are any concerns about an employee's performance, the line manager should discuss them fully and openly with the employee, and an action plan to address the issue should be agreed upon. The line manager should always be positive and encouraging.

If necessary, the line manager should clearly explain to the employee the consequences of underperformance. The individual should be made aware that continued failure to meet the required standards may result in his or her employment being terminated.

Dos and don'ts of progress meetings

Do:

  • Be clear and precise when discussing areas in which the employee is failing to meet the required standard, providing specific examples where possible.
  • Give the employee prompt feedback if problems arise.
  • Try to establish any underlying reason for performance problems.
  • Focus on successes as well as failures.
  • Be tolerant of mistakes - the new employee has to learn and cannot realistically be expected to do everything proficiently at first.
  • Deliver any necessary criticism in a constructive way.
  • Encourage the employee to raise any concerns or suggestions that he or she has about any aspect of the employment.
  • Listen to what the employee has to say.
  • Ensure that you set aside time to spend supporting the employee.

Dont:

  • Automatically blame the employee for mistakes or lapses in performance.
  • Assume that unsatisfactory performance is being caused by something that is within the new employee's control.
  • Postpone or cancel progress meetings unless this is absolutely unavoidable. Doing so will result in the employee assuming that he or she is unimportant to the organisation.
  • Allow interruptions during progress meetings.
  • Allow any personal like or dislike of the new employee to influence your assessment of his or her performance.
  • Expect perfection.

Communication skills required for a progress meeting

If a progress meeting is to have a positive outcome, open, honest and unambiguous communication will be necessary.

The manager should:

  • stick to facts and avoid expressing personal opinions, unless these are constructive and can be backed up by facts;
  • be specific when identifying any shortfalls in performance;
  • avoid generalisations such as "you never meet your deadlines" or "you're doing OK";
  • ask open questions;
  • listen actively to what the employee has to say and take it on board;
  • ensure that the tone used is friendly rather than accusatory;
  • use positive words such as "improvement" and "achievement", rather than negative words such as "failure" or "weakness"; and
  • check for understanding, for example, by asking the employee to summarise his or her understanding of what has been discussed.

Keeping records

The content of progress meetings should be fully and clearly documented on a probation review form.

The form should provide an accurate record of what was discussed at the meeting, including any areas of concern, as well as a note of the areas in which the employee is performing well.

The probation review form should be completed and a copy provided to the employee. If there are any areas of disagreement over what should be recorded on the form, the manager should try to resolve these with the employee prior to the document being signed by both parties.

FINAL REVIEW

At the end of the probationary period, the manager should conduct a "final progress review" of the employee's performance and suitability for the job.

It is extremely important that the final review meeting is held on or before the end of the agreed probationary period. If the meeting does not take place by this date, technically the employee's appointment will be confirmed by default. This will mean that any subsequent

dismissal on account of unsatisfactory performance will be harder for the employer to justify.

The final review will allow both the manager and the employee to:

  • identify and discuss any areas in which the employee requires further training or development;
  • check how the employee feels about his or her employment in general; and
  • explain how performance will be managed in the future, for example through the employer's formal appraisal system.

If the employee's performance is satisfactory, the manager should issue a letter of confirmation of appointment to the employee.

If the employee's performance has not been up to the standards required, the manager should discuss the matter with the HR department or external HR consultant before any decision is made not to confirm the employee's appointment.

EXTENDING PROBATIONARY PERIODS

If, at the end of the set probationary period, the employee's performance is unsatisfactory - or in cases where the employee or the manager has been absent from the workplace for an extended period during probation - an extension of the probationary period may be appropriate.

An extension should normally be sought only where there are special circumstances justifying it, and any extension of a probationary period should normally be for no more than three months.

Where it is agreed that an employee's period of probation will be extended, it will be important for the manager to set out the terms of the extension in writing. It will be important to state clearly:

  • the length of the extension and the date on which the extended period of probation will end;
  • the reason for the extension - for example that the employee's performance has fallen short of certain standards, but the manager reasonably believes that an extension of time will be effective in allowing him or her to achieve these
  • standards;
  • the performance standards or objectives that the employee is required to achieve by the end of the extended period of probation;
  • any support - such as further training - that will be provided during the extension; and
  • that if the employee does not meet fully the required standards by the end of the extended period of probation, his or her employment will be terminated.

It is not advisable to extend an employee's period of probation more than once. It is equally inadvisable to make extending probationary periods the norm. An extension should be agreed only if there are special factors that justify it.

Where an employee's probationary period is extended, written details of how and why performance has fallen short of the required standards should be attached to the terms of the extension.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS DURING PROBATIONARY PERIODS

Although a period of probation will have no impact on an employee's statutory employment rights, it is open to an employer to make entitlement to certain contractual rights available only after satisfactory completion of a defined probationary period.

Line managers will need to check with their HR department which, if any, contractual rights are held back until employees have reached the end of their probationary period.

Distinction between statutory and contractual rights - example

Payment of sick pay

Statutory sick pay: Statutory sick pay must be made available to employees from the first day of their employment. This is the case irrespective of whether or not the employee is subject to a probationary period.

Contractual sick pay: By contrast, contractual sick pay (i.e. payment of normal wages or salary during defined periods of sickness absence), which is not required by law, may be made available to employees subject to their having satisfactorily completed a defined period of probation.

Notice periods

It is possible to define shorter periods of notice than normally apply to the organisation's employees during probation.

Employers are required by law to give employees defined minimum periods of notice to terminate their employment. These statutory minimum periods of notice can be extended through the contract, but not shortened (except in the case of gross misconduct on the part of the employee, in which case the employee may be dismissed without any notice).

Statutory notice periods come into play once an employee has completed one month's service. At that point, the minimum period of notice that the employer must give the employee to terminate the employment is one week. After two years' service, this rises to two weeks. From then onwards it increases by one week per completed year of service, up to a maximum of 12 weeks.

After one month's service the statutory minimum period of notice that the employee must give to the employer if he or she wishes to resign is one week. This does not rise with increased length of service. Again, the period of notice may be extended by a clause in the employee's contract.

It is common practice for employers to make new employees' employment subject to the statutory minimum periods of notice, and to specify longer notice periods that will apply once they have satisfactorily completed the period of probation.

If a new employee turns out to be unsuitable, it is preferable for the employer to be able to terminate the employment with the shortest possible period of notice.

INSTITUTING PROBATIONARY PERIODS FOR EMPLOYEES TRANSFERRED OR PROMOTED INTERNALLY

It is open to an employer to place an existing employee on probation where he or she has been promoted or transferred into a new role.

This may be appropriate where the new job involves duties and responsibilities that are completely different from those of the employee's old job, for example where a shop floor worker is promoted to the position of junior manager.

The employee's continuity of service in these circumstances will be unaffected by the promotion, transfer, or by the probationary period. Continuous service will be counted from the first day of employment, and not the first day of the new job.

If the employee does not succeed in reaching the required standards for the new position, and if there is no suitable alternative position into which he or she can be transferred, the line manager may have no option but to terminate the employee's employment.

Since an individual in these circumstances will, in most cases, have more than the required qualifying period of continuous service to bring an unfair dismissal complaint, he or she will have the right to bring a claim of unfair dismissal before an employment tribunal.

An employee in these circumstances will have no automatic right to be moved back into his or her previous job role, unless this was expressly agreed as part of the terms of the transfer or promotion.

DISMISSING AN EMPLOYEE DURING OR AT THE END OF THE PROBATIONARY PERIOD

If a probationer's performance is unsatisfactory, and it is clear that further training or support is unlikely to alter the situation, termination of the employment will be the next step.

Unsatisfactory performance in the job for which an individual has been employed is capable of being a fair reason for dismissal in law.

In order to give an employee a full opportunity to come up to the required standards, the line manager will usually wait until the end of the probationary period before taking a decision to terminate. However, if there is clear evidence to suggest that the employee is wholly unsuitable for the role, early termination may be appropriate.

If the employee on probation transferred internally, the line manager should review whether or not there is any available alternative employment that might be offered to the employee in order to avoid the need to terminate his or her employment.

Any proposal to transfer the employee again - whether back to his or her old job or to an alternative role - will need to be agreed with the employee concerned.

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