Lucy Adams
February 1, 2022
Reading time: 7 minutes
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Ask Google the definition of probation and this is what comes up …. ‘the release of an offender from detention, subject to a period of good behaviour under supervision.’

It’s interesting isn’t it that we spend a lot of money recruiting someone, try really hard to create a great initial experience for them – to make them feel welcomed – and then put them into this probation period which has such negative connotations?

When we mention this to people in HR – they often laugh say ‘OMG. I hadn’t thought of it like that?!’ But then when they reflect on it, they will remember how nervous employees are when their end of probation interview is coming up and how relieved they are when they are told they’ve passed it. They see that we really do put them under this threat of expulsion, and that the sword of Damocles can hang there for up to 6 months! This can’t be the experience we want to create for them is it?

I think there are a couple of other issues with probation periods.

We often offer people a job and expect them to leave their company where they have things like private health care or a decent notice period – and then we bring them in on worse terms than their new colleagues, without these perks – until they have proven themselves. We do this because if we’ve made a mistake and the person joining us doesn’t work out, then we want to reduce our exposure in terms of costs.

But what we’re doing – and this is very typical of HR – we are designing our processes to protect our organisation from the minority of people who will behave badly. Applying this lowest common denominator approach is always going to create a poor and frustrating experience for the vast majority who will behave well.

Fortunately, we’re seeing a welcome trend in the removal of probation periods.

If you’re thinking about doing this, a useful exercise is to look back over the last couple of years and identify the number of people who were fired during their probation period. I bet it will be a tiny percentage of the number of people you have recruited. A client of ours did this – and out of their 10,000 staff – only two a year didn’t get through their probation. So, they simply dropped the qualifying period. They said it made no difference to their costs but created a much more appealing offer when they were recruiting people.

Another company, Babcock, challenged the idea of a ‘qualifying period’ where you have to earn the company’s trust before you can get the same treatment as your colleagues. They looked at their policy for sick pay as a result of the crisis and now allow new staff to take full company sick pay from their start date.

PwC have removed the probationary period in relation to flexible working. They say “We don’t have the mantra that you have to be here a certain amount of time before you have flexibility or that you have to earn it. You have to trust your employees from the day they walk in the door. That’s why you hired them.’

Of course, you may want to still acknowledge that the first few weeks or months is a period of time when both you, the employer – and your new recruit – are finding out about each other and building your relationship. But why not frame it differently and call it ‘the settling in period’ or ‘the getting to know each other period’. Positioning it this way prompts HR to provide managers with tools to help them better understand their new hire like they do at LinkedIn, rather than a pass/fail checklist.

If we are going to create a positive experience for our new hires and make it attractive for them to leave their current employer, then abolishing probation periods is a good place to start.

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