Labor and Employment

What Is a Probationary Period and How Does It Work?

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As an employer, it is very important for you to assess employee performance to ensure that they are achieving established performance standards. Where there is uncertainty about an employee's ability to perform the duties assigned, it may be necessary to use probationary periods to assess work performance and provide the employee with an opportunity to correct any deficiencies.

Using the Probationary Period

The probationary period usually runs from six months to one year and gives the supervisor or manager an opportunity to evaluate an employee's performance and conduct on the job, provide remedial opportunities and, if it is necessary, remove or reassign the employee. Employers often require probationary periods for the following types of employees:

  • New employees added to the workforce
  • Existing employees who are demonstrating performance deficiencies
  • Existing employees who are placed on a new position but who did not complete their initial probationary period
  • Existing or new employees who are appointed to their first supervisory or managerial position

Use of the probationary period ensures a high quality of performance from new and existing employees and gives new supervisors and managers an adequate opportunity to prove themselves.

Steps for Successful Use of Probationary Policies

In adopting and implementing probationary period strategies, some recommended steps are to:

  • Notify the employee of the probationary status and, for an existing employee, identify performance deficiencies
  • Consult with your human resources office to develop a performance plan or individual development plan with the employee when performance deficiencies are identified
  • Conduct periodic reviews with the employee and provide feedback and counseling
  • Provide any mandatory training and identify other training opportunities
  • Assign a knowledgeable and experienced mentor to advise the employee
  • Obtain input from other employees and supervisors and from customers who interact with the employee

Formal performance plans for new employees and supervisors usually are not necessary unless performance problems are indicated. Employee reviews and counseling should occur at least every 90 days during the probationary period and more frequently if serious performance deficiencies are evident. Finally, the assignment of a mentor provides the employee a means to express ideas or concerns that might not otherwise be shared with the supervisor.

Documenting Reviews

It is very important that you maintain a written record of the employee's work performance during the probationary period. This documentation provides the basis for conducting reviews with the employee about his or her progress in achieving performance goals or for identifying continuing performance deficiencies. In maintaining a performance record during the probationary period, it is advisable that:

  • You do not suggest or indicate that the employee's failure to perform was a foregone conclusion
  • You document performance deficiencies that are continuing
  • You document performance deficiencies that were previously ignored or overlooked
  • Your documentation must be accurate and clear and not be self-serving

Any documentation that indicates employer bias or lack of objectivity in attempting to correct the employee's performance may be used by the employee in a claim that the probationary period was merely a pretext to unlawfully terminate the employee.

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