Putting New Hires on Probation: Pros and Cons

July 23, 2022
Putting New Hires on Probation: Pros and Cons
In many cases, employment numbers seem to be rebounding, which means you may be bringing more new hires on board than you have in the last few years. When you consider the changes in the employment landscape, you might wonder if you should institute a new hire probationary period as part of your hiring process. There are typically 2 types of probation periods related to employment:
  • A trial period to determine if an individual is a good fit for the position and the company.
  • Grace period provided an employee to correct performance deficiencies. The intent is to salvage the hire. May end in termination.
For this article, we will focus on the first definition, the trial period. We will help you determine where your focus should be for this process and how to make it a valuable time for you and your new employee.

Benefits of using new hire probationary periods

When you buy a new car, you take it for a test drive, right? Naturally, you want to ensure it’s comfortable, responsive, and fits what you’ve been looking for.
Probationary periods are the safety net that sets everyone up for success.
The hiring process isn’t much different. A new hire probationary period lets the company and the new hire understand what will be involved in the job. Sure, there’s the interview process, but everyone’s on their best behavior during interviews — you as the employer and the prospective employee, too. So, what are the benefits of instituting a new hire probationary period?
  • It gives you, as the employer and the new employee, a chance to get on the same page and understand and clarify the expectations of the role.
  • Allows the employee time to understand the company’s culture and for you to observe the employee in the context of that culture.
  • It provides an opportunity for the new employee to shine and get noticed for prime projects.
  • It can be cost-effective by allowing less time to go by before a non-performing employee is released.
  • Employees who determine the job or company are not a good fit for them can move on before they feel they’ve wasted precious time.
Everyone wants the new employment relationship to work well. Probationary periods are the safety net that sets everyone up for success.

Downsides to new hire probationary periods

Probationary periods can be fraught with problems if they’re not correctly implemented and executed. Some of the issues with probationary periods could include:
  • A lack of consistency in how a probationary period is applied to all employees sets a company up for charges of discriminatory practices.
  • Poorly documented processes and expectations can lead to misunderstandings and even lawsuits in some cases.
  • Managers who shift the rules of the process midstream create a perception of a culture that doesn’t value employees and has no vision of where it’s heading.
  • Employees may feel that they’re “safe” once they’ve completed their probationary period and relax their performance standards.
The good news is that these potential issues can be proactively addressed on the front end. Doing so will set you up for a productive employment relationship with the new hire.

Montana companies: What you need to know

It’s important to note that Montana’s state legislature enacted a requirement that companies give new hires a mandatory, clearly defined probationary period. For companies that don’t have this trial period specified in their written and communicated policies, the state’s default probationary period time frame is 12 months. As of July 2022, Montana is currently the only state with this employment law on the books.

How to make probationary periods less stressful

As an employer, you need to ensure that your chosen probationary period is part of your written policy handbook given to all employees. It also needs to be clearly defined in a prospect’s offer letter so there aren’t any surprises.
Clearly define the probationary period in the employee handbook and in the employee's offer letter.
In addition to clearly defining the length of time and terms of the probationary period, the company can do a few more things to make the process better for all involved:
  • Have an open-door policy: Sure, many managers and HR professionals may say they have an open-door policy. Still, when the proverbial rubber meets the road, they don’t make time to be available or approachable for employee questions. Leave your door open or put a “welcome” sign outside your cubicle to give yourself the appearance of approachability.
  • Schedule weekly check-ins: Nobody likes to have meetings for the sake of having them. We don’t have time for that. However, scheduling a weekly 15-20-minute touch-base with your employees specifically intended to let them get clarification and provide you with updates gives you the time to develop face-to-face rapport and a relationship.
  • Communicate clearly: When business is moving at the speed of light, it’s easy to find yourself talking with a type of short-hand. Ensure you are clear with your communicated expectations and responses to employee questions.
  • Have a structured onboarding and training process: This is not about all the forms employees must complete within their first few days of employment. This is about providing crucial information about the company, its culture, and the job’s functions.
Creating a cohesive team environment with open lines of communication is the best way to ensure your new hire’s probationary period is effective and productive.

What new employees should do during a probationary period

This probationary period is the perfect time for your new hire to shine. Set them up for success and let them know what you’re looking for during this trial period. Some things you could consider sharing with your new hire include:
  • Basic employment etiquette: If this is an employee’s first job or their first time working in a while, remind them of some basics that you want from them. They should be on time, consider others when talking on the phone or having conversations with cube/office-mates, dress in keeping with the expectations outlined in the employee manual, use their time effectively, and keep confidential information locked in a file cabinet or drawer. There may be other things you want to discuss, but this gets you started.
  • Work to improve the skills they need to perform their job: Whether using new software, learning new products, or becoming familiar with the names of people in the company and the customers, there’s always an opportunity to become more proficient.
  • See feedback as a gift: When you give your new employees feedback, it’s with the intent to help them improve. Make sure your new employee knows you’re on their side and want to help them succeed.
  • Stay positive and focused: In a new environment, it can be a bit of a minefield when someone’s trying to get the lay of the land. Help your new employee by encouraging them to focus on what’s going well, work on what’s new and needs improvement, and look for opportunities to improve processes. Encourage them to ask questions about why something is done a certain way if it doesn’t make sense to them — they just may help you improve your operations.
Your new employee can benefit your group if you set them up for a positive experience.

What happens when the probationary period ends?

Now that your new employee is no longer so “new” and has successfully completed the defined probation period, it’s time to move to the next phase of their employment. In all reality, nothing has changed. You still expect them to perform at a high level, and there is no contract outlining a specific period of employment between the employee and the company. There does need to be an acknowledgment of the close of that introductory trial period, though. You’ll want to:
  • Assess the usefulness of the probationary period.
  • Provide feedback summarizing discussions that have happened during the weekly check-ins.
Ensure your employee knows that you will continue to have your weekly check-in meetings and that you’re still as available for questions as you’ve been during probation.

Questions to ask during the assessment discussion

As part of the discussion, we have provided some questions to consider using as part of your debrief:
  • Do you feel you were given an accurate picture of what to expect from the position when you were hired?
  • What strengths are you bringing to the company now that you have a better feel for who we are and what we’re about?
  • How do you feel you’ve performed during your probationary period?
  • What experience do you feel you’ve gained during your probationary period?
  • Is there anything you wish would have happened differently during your probationary period?
  • What do you want to accomplish and learn over the next 12 months? What is your role in that, and what do you need from me to help you get there?
  • How do you feel about your future with the company?
Getting answers to these questions will help improve the probation period for your next new hire. It will also help you understand where your employee sees themselves with the company in the future.

Moving forward into a successful future

Probationary periods might seem like an unnecessary step in the hiring process to some. Still, when you put structure around it, there’s value for the company, the manager, and the new hire.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

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