Probationary Periods – best practice

Probationary Periods are primarily used to provide a clear framework for assessing the suitability of new employees in terms of capability, skills, performance, general conduct and attendance against the standards you have set for the role.

Updated in March 2020 with additional information on changes to the provisions on Section 1 Statements from 6 April 2020.

This means when you use a probationary period you should clearly set out your standards and expectations from the very start so the new employee fully understands what you expect from them in terms of performance, behaviour and attendance and the consequences of failing to achieve those standards.

There is a strong argument that the use of probationary periods increases the probability that new employees will succeed in their employment. Conversely, the absence of an effective probationary review process may lead to an employee who is not suited to the job being retained indefinitely.

Problems are much easier to resolve if they are tackled shortly after they arise. When allowed to continue that may well escalate.

Employees who receive immediate feedback will have a fair opportunity to improve their performance or change their behaviour rather than remaining ignorant of their manager’s dissatisfaction.

Probationary Periods and Contracts of Employment

If you haven’t used probationary periods before you will need to amend your contract of employment to state that the initial period of employment will be a probationary period, that the employee will be assessed during that period and their employment may be terminated if they do not reach the required standards.

I also recommend you include the right to extend the probationary period for a further limited period. You can only extend the period once by a timeframe of no longer than the original period. This means if you are unsure about an employee, or have been unable to properly assess there performance, you can give them a bit more time.

From 6 April 2020 the law relating to the content of Section 1 Statements is changing. Under the new legislation Probationary Periods are added to the list of clauses which are essential for inclusion within the Section 1 Statements. The clause must include its duration and any conditions that apply (such as a shorter notice period) during the probation. Read my article Section 1 Statements to find out more about what is changing in relation to Section 1 Statements.

What is an Acceptable Time Limit for a Probationary Period?

There is no legal guidance on how long a probationary period should be. For managers, technical and professionally qualified staff a probationary period of between 3 and 6 months is commonly acceptable whilst for more junior employees a period of between 1 and 3 months is more usual.

Structuring the Probationary Programme

It is important that the employee understands your expectations in relation to their performance and how you will assess whether they are meeting your expectations. This process of understanding starts with the induction process and is supported by the on the job training you will provide during the first few weeks of employment. The probationary programme will also include:

  • Regular monitoring of the new employee’s performance through progress meetings;
  • Identification and discussion of any problem areas at the earliest possible time;
  • The provision of regular constructive feedback;
  • Supervisory support and guidance; and
  • The provision of any necessary training and coaching.

The probationary period must be properly planned if it is to be effective and both parties should be clear about the expectations – there should be no suprises at the end of period! The information shared with the new employee should include:

  • Clear job outputs, i.e. what the new employee is expected to achieve during, or by the end of, the probationary period;
  • The standards of performance that are required in respect of the job duties;
  • The standards or measurements against which the employee’s performance will be assessed;
  • Any agreed development activities; and
  • A description of any relevant standards of behaviour, for example in relation to liaison with clients and colleagues.

If the employee is unclear about any of these areas, they may lack commitment to the programme and ultimately fail to achieve your expectations.

Read my article Setting Objectives to find out more about setting objectives.

Interim Probationary Review Meetings

As the new employee progresses through their probationary period you should ensure feedback about any areas of concern is given regularly – the outcome of a probationary period should not come as a surprise to your employee!

I’m not suggesting a huge amount of your time here, during a probationary period of 6 months’ you could have interim reviews at the end of the first and third months and then a final review just before the employee reaches the 6 month point.

During the review meetings you should:

  • Discuss work performance to date
  • Provide constructive feedback highlighting both achievements and areas of weakness, using suitable examples
  • Review the expectations that were set when the employee started
  • Discuss what support or training can be put in place to help the employee succeed in the role
  • Set clear targets for the next review period

Make notes of these meetings, as you would any business meeting, including any action agreed to resolve concerns. The notes will be important later on if the employee doesn’t meet the minimum requirements you have set them. Give a copy of the notes to the employee so there are no misunderstandings.

Final Probationary Review Meeting

The final review meeting should be more formal than the interim meetings. You will need to invite the employee, in writing, to the meeting and outline, in the letter, any areas of concern and attach any relevant documentation such as attendance records. The letter should also confirm the employees’ right to be accompanied and explain the possible outcomes of the hearing.

Before any decision is made, make sure the employee has been given:

  • All of the information with regard to their performance
  • The opportunity to comment on any concerns you have raised
  • The right to be accompanied
  • The right of appeal if their employment is terminated.

Template Probationary Review Form

My Probationary Review Form is designed for you to use to record the discussions you have with your new employee as they progress through the probationary period.

The form includes fields for recording achievement of targets set at the start of the probationary period, assessment of their conduct, attendance, skills and behaviour. Finally their are two sign off options of achieving and not achieving – so it is clear to the employee how they are progressing.

To download the Template Probationary Review Form complete your details below and an email containing the document will find it’s way to your inbox:

Download the Template Probationary review Form Now!

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Probationary Periods – best practice