Let’s Eliminate Employee Probation

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“Probation” has a couple of meanings, including one from our criminal justice system. Its technical definition is “the release of an offender from detention, subject to a period of good behavior under supervision.” We also use it for newly hired employees, making their first few months feel like a presumption of incompetence until proven otherwise. It’s hard to reconcile that thinking with the supposed “honeymoon period” a new employee should be experiencing as he or she learns the ropes under a nurturing and supportive mentor.

During a probation period, workers generally don’t have health coverage, can’t take time off, and may be fired for any reason (even in states with laws that prevent at-will employment.) Probationary periods can last as long as six months, and can also be instated for employees who have been promoted to a new role.  Job insecurity as a reward for proving you’re ready for more responsibility.

Ira Wolfe, writing for the online HR site ReWork, says “Hiring is a challenging process, but don’t take your frustration out on the candidate. By keeping your employees in limbo, you’re essentially saying: ‘Our managers suck at hiring, and we have little confidence in our screening and selection, so we’re going to put you on probation for the next 90 days to cover our butts.’ If you’ve decided to extend a job offer but have little confidence in the employee, a probation period probably won’t save you.”

It’s true; moving a new hire from probationary to permanent status could be construed to mean that the company can no longer discharge the employee without good cause. You may be creating the very situation you’re trying to eliminate. I suspect that the real reason companies cling to probationary periods is to see whether the new hire is going to fit in – they want to be able to opt out if they find that the new guy is rubbing people the wrong way.

The job insecurity that comes with probation actually makes it harder for workers to master their new roles, especially if they’re not given much training or feedback. They worry about asking “too many” questions. They fear that any small mistake may cost them their job, so they may bluff their way through new assignments or try to cover up their weaknesses. They meekly follow directions, even when they’re not sure it makes sense or they’ve understood what they’re being told. They don’t speak up if someone treats them badly. It’s a recipe for a miserable experience.

So what should we do instead? First, make sure managers have the tools they need to make good hires.  In a tight labor market, you’re not always going to find a perfect fit for skills or experience, so you’ll need to focus more on personal qualities like persistence, flexibility and the ability to learn quickly.

Next, spend lots more energy and time on the onboarding process. In fact, let’s change the name of this critical time from probation to the onboarding period. During this first few months, we’re not watching you like a hawk waiting for you to slip up. Instead, we’re providing a combination of specific learning goals, training, and mentoring to make sure you succeed. We make sure you hit milestones by certain dates (within two months, for example, you should be able to produce an error-free case file.)

We bring you in for weekly check-ins, encouraging you to ask questions and let us know what you’re struggling with. We celebrate new tasks you take on, even when early efforts are less than perfect. We ask for feedback from your managers, your coworkers and your customers so we can help you improve. We tell you what you’re doing right along with what we’d like you to spend more time on.

We ask you how you’re feeling.

We prove to you that we’re on your team. Your success is our goal – and our responsibility. We put the “human” back into Human Resources.

Or we do it the way we’ve always done it and wonder why good people are so hard to find and keep.

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