Traditionally, many employers have enforced probation periods for newly hired employees, often for 60 or 90 days. This is usually linked to employee benefits, such as health insurance coverage, which do not start until an employee has completed their probation period.
Many private sector employers are now rethinking the value and purpose of probation periods. Should you?
Probation periods for employees in “at will” states:
Most employers in Washington State are familiar with the “at will” doctrine, which generally means that either a company or an employee can terminate their employment relationship at any time, with or without cause.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a company can terminate an employee for an unlawful reason–but the employment relationship is always “at the will” of the employer and the employee.
A probation period may send the message to a new employee that their employment is more conditional during the established initial period. This can leave them under the impression that once they’ve passed their probation period, their employment is now secured and they cannot then be terminated without good cause.
Businesses must be very careful about how they describe and apply probation periods, in order to protect their company’s “at will” employment status.
You need good documentation if your new employees have probation periods:
If a company’s probation period for new hires is not described correctly, it can imply an employment contract. Yikes!
If your company has a probation period:
- Make sure your policies and employee handbook contain references to your “at will” policy throughout
- Be careful about the language you use to define the status of an employee after they’ve completed their probation period
If you tell a worker that their employment status changes after completing the probation period, you may have a harder time when you need to terminate the employment relationship.
Alternatives to using probation periods for new employees:
Conducting more frequent performance reviews during a worker’s first year of employment is a great way to replace a proscribed probation periods.
Holding performance reviews at three, six, and nine months may be a much more effective way to assess and coach new employees. Doing this fosters great communication with your new worker and gives you useful feedback. Regularly assessing their training needs and checking in to learn their thoughts on how the job is going can be invaluable to a new employee’s success.
It’s expensive to hire a new employee! It simply makes good financial sense to invest in their success with tactics like this.
Don’t forget about your current employees:
If you are using feedback loops for employees in new positions, don’t forget about your employees who have been promoted or transferred into new jobs.
They need the same feedback and opportunities for communication that a new employee has. You sure don’t want to lose them just because they are overwhelmed by or underprepared for their new responsibilities.
Give new employees immediate feedback:
Be sure you train your supervisors to give immediate feedback to new employees, and to not save it for the proscribed performance reviews.
New hires often are trying hard to make a good impression in the beginning, and to learn three months in that they’ve been doing something wrong is very demotivating. If they’re given that feedback as they go, they have the opportunity to continue to impress you with their performance and desire to excel.
Rethinking probation periods for new hires:
Just because it’s always been done doesn’t mean it still should be!
Businesses can reap great rewards by rethinking probation periods for new hires, and replacing probations with continuous communication that focuses on individual and corporate improvement.