The Probationary Period


Miles Cooper insists that there is really nothing to fear from that ‘dreaded’ probationary period

You’re about to start a new job and decide to read through your employment contract for the first time. Is there a surer way to tarnish your early enthusiasm and optimism than realising that you will have to work through a probationary period before becoming a full employee?

Learning that early failure to perform may mean you’re given less than one week’s notice leaves you feeling like anything but a valuable new member of the team. Why wasn’t this mentioned at the interview stage?

In fact, you should never be surprised to learn that you will be on probation for the first few weeks or months with a new employer. Firstly, most firms require that you serve a probationary period.

Secondly, you should always read your employment contract before accepting any offer so there should be no room for shocking realisations at any later stage. So, armed with the knowledge that you should expect to find a probation paragraph in your contract, you should be ready to recognise and deal with any deviations from the norm.

Probationary periods usually last for three months. Some employers will be happy to take you on as a full employee after only a few days, others will require you to work for a whole year before you satisfy their requirement. Next, you need to know how much notice of termination of employment is required on each side. In the majority of cases this will be one week. If the normal terms of your contract would require three months notice on both sides, then probationary notice may be one month or more. In some cases, there may be an asymmetry in the notice required by either side. For example, you may have to give your employer a week’s notice, while they are only obliged to tell you the day before, or vice-versa.

Pay attention to what will happen to your remuneration while on probation – will you be obliged to accept a lower starting salary for a few weeks? Will your commission from sales be lower than that of someone who has successfully completed their probation period? What about absence due to sickness? In each case, you must scrutinise your contract before putting your name to this legally binding document. There may be occasions where your particular requirements are not covered in the contract, for example, the question of whether or not maternity leave is dealt with in the same way while on probation. Make sure that you ask for such to be clarified in your terms of employment before committing yourself. This section of your contract is, in many ways, a self-contained employment contract in itself and so deserves close attention. {mospagebreak}

We’ll assume that you are now over the shock of having to work a probationary period and all the implications that has for your job security, salary, benefits and so on. How do you ensure that you get through the next weeks and months without any problems? At this point, it’s useful to remember that this clause in your contract works both ways – your employer is on probation too. Do not fall into the trap that you must endure everything that is thrown at you because your primary aim is to get through the next three months. No, if your employer does not come up to scratch, it’s time to think about making the most of the shortened notice period part of your contract – your boss is bound by its terms too.

What if you actually like your new job, you get on with your colleagues, the canteen serves a variety of excellent dishes and the commute home is bearable? How do you ensure that they’ll want to keep you on once your probationary period has expired? Or, to turn that around, what sort of behaviour is likely to get you ejected? Poor timekeeping is a sure way to make your boss feel that he or she has made a poor decision in hiring you. Even if everybody else in your department staggers in at 10:30, you should make a special effort to arrive in good time because somebody will be watching and noting your behaviour.

Failure to get to grips with the basic skills and routines of your post are a certain way to get the sack. The details of these requirements may not have been obvious when you applied for the job. For example, your employer may assume that you are an experienced user of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Many people have found themselves being shown the door after displaying spectacular ignorance of office technology – be sure that you can compose and send email, resize windows and turn the monitor on/off if your new place of work depends on IT. The mouse should not be used as a foot pedal.

However, there is a flipside to all of this. It is your employer’s responsibility to take all reasonable steps to help you through your probation period, to provide any and all training, mentoring and encouragement that you need. Once again, remember that they too are on probation. I have seen a particularly good employment contract that requires that the content of one’s final probationary assessment should not contain any surprises. If criticism of your performance is contained in the final report then it must only be included as a summary and re-assertion of what has been said before. The same contract also states that the employer is responsible for keeping one informed of one’s progress or any lack thereof. Having a clause like this in your own contract is something worth fighting for.{mospagebreak}

What are the possible outcomes once the completion date arrives? In many cases, your boss will call you into the office to inform you that everything is satisfactory or one morning you may find a confirmation of completion document on your desk. If you have really shone, if your performance has exceeded everybody’s expectations, you may even be offered a promotion (which may or may not come with its own probationary period).

Sometimes, a worker’s performance may fall a little short of the target. In this case, it’s possible that the period will be extended for another month or so or until the employer is satisfied that all the requirements have been met. Alternatively, a worker who has demonstrably failed to be up to the job, may be moved sideways or downwards to another position. The worst case, of course, is being asked to leave during or at the completion of one’s probationary period. If this happens to you, be aware that since 1999, employees in the United Kingdom can only make a claim for unfair dismissal after twelve months of continuous employment (before 1999 it was two years). Other countries have stricter employment laws. For example, a recent case in New Zealand saw a successful claim for unfair dismissal even though the claimant had only been employed for 32 hours. The commission ordered compensation equivalent to four months salary on the basis that the employee was “ready, willing and able to perform tasks.” It turned out that the employer had never issued a written confirmation of the employee’s probationary period.

Finally, if you yourself decide that your employer has not met your targets and left you feeling unwelcome and undervalued (perhaps by failing to provide interesting work or proper support and training), you must give proper notice that you intend to terminate your employment. We always recommend that you do this in the correct way and abide by the terms of your employment contract with style and dignity: arrange a meeting with your boss in which explain your reasons for leaving before handing over an appropriate letter of resignation.

If nothing else, this approach will make it more likely that this employer provides your next employer with a favourable reference.