What is the actual point of a probation period?

What is the actual point of a probation period?

Written by Matt Everson

A Digital/Agile HR Business Partner with a keen interest in politics, the environment and sustainability. Previous experience in Telecomms, Start-Up and Global Media. Matt lives in Reading with his fiance, Emma and puppy, Daphne.

In my view – employee probation periods are a cowards way out of dealing with a problem… There, I said it!

It’s the easy way out of removing an employee that you couldn’t make successful.  The length of a probation period, often 1 to 3 months, is too short to really get to know an individual and their skills. After 3 months you’re still barely getting to know what makes them tick!

So I propose we get rid of probation period altogether.

The high failure of probations in a company should be solely blamed on the employer.
I say this for several reasons. Either the hiring process has some major issues in it.  The onboarding process isn’t being kept up to speed. Or management aren’t clear in what they want/have unrealistic expectations.

Now I’m not saying that every employee is perfect. However, from my experience 90% of the time it’s the employer not doing enough to help the employee.

And let’s be honest. Realistically, you can still let go of an employee post probation, often it’s only one month notice. Under 2 years the risk to the employer is small. 

But what is causing lots of people to fail their probation period?

Resourcing could be a major issue.
The team are not weeding out the right skills or behaviours that match the company. This isn’t the individual’s fault, they passed your test!

Recruitment teams should be constantly iterating their interview approach, flexing with the business. A good recruitment team should also be tracking their early attrition and probation stats to ensure they are sourcing candidates correctly.

A bad recruitment team will just result in high turnover.
It’s not about the number of roles filled – that won’t make the company successful, it’s quality.

Onboarding could be another issue causing your probation period failure rate to shoot up. If you are not setting up your new starters for success there’s no surprise that they fail probation. A successful onboarding should give the new starters all the tools they require to work at their best. It should show them (and experience) the company culture with HOW things actually work. This is just basics onboarding 101.

Going further you should be checking in on a weekly basis with the new starter, asking them for feedback about what could help them in their new job – it’s important to create an environment where they can feedback that they need more support.

A poor onboarding = higher probation period failure.

Unrealistic expectations from management are yet another big issue in probation. It can be broken down into 2 points, capability and culture. Management/senior leadership, whoever makes the decision on probation.


SIDE NOTE. It is never HR. Stop reading those stupid viral LinkedIn posts about how a manager defied HR to keep somebody who then turned out to be employee of the year!

Too often management/senior leadership say the individual just doesn’t ‘fit’ with us.
What does that even mean?

In my view, it really means that you don’t have an open and welcoming culture to others… In which case, the employee was not wrong to not ‘fit’ your culture.

If you’re good at performance management and coaching, there is no reason whatsoever you need probation. Low performing employee (capability wise or behaviourally) can be performance managed, whilst everybody else should be able to be coached to be their best.

So why do you need probation? Because you’re rubbish at the basics. 

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