Factsheet: Probation Periods in the Workplace

By Anthony Wolny | 8th November 2018 | 13 min read

With various sources stating that humans are now predicted to spend as much as a third of their lives at work, and the retirement age continuing to rise ever higher, it is no wonder that UK employees expect more from the workplace than ever before.

The average person is believed to change their job between 10 to 15 times over the course of their career, and spend an average of five years or less in each position – meaning that far more time and attention is now devoted to transitioning from one job to another.

With this in mind, probation periods have therefore never been more important. If any employer is ever in doubt as to their importance, a survey from HR Magazine found that up to 18 percent of all new recruits fail their probation in the UK. The two most common reasons for failing to progress onto a permanent contract were cited as poor performance (62 percent), and absence from the workplace (50 percent). Without such measures in place, this could potentially mean that a fifth of one company’s workforce could be completely unsuited to the jobs that they have been hired to do.

What is a probation period?

Otherwise known as a ‘trial period,’ the term probation period refers to a trial period of employment at the beginning of an employee’s working relationship with a company. The period will usually consist of a fixed amount of time, set out by the employer, during which the new employee will be exempt from some contractual rights and responsibilities.

Why are probation periods used?

Essentially, probation periods exist to protect both employees and employers from the potentially negative impact of an employee not being a ‘good fit’ within their new role or in the wider business, and also to make things easier should the contract need to be terminated on either side.

From a manager’s point of view, probationary periods can be used to evaluate a worker’s performance, skills and abilities, and also to assess whether they engage with the existing organisational culture. On the employee’s side, probationary periods are useful in order to assess if they enjoy working for their new employer, and how well the reality of the role is suited to their existing skills and abilities.

How long are they usually for?

New employees commonly join a business on initial probationary periods of between three to six months, although some companies will extend this to up to a year in some circumstances (normally related to more senior or complex roles and working situations). Contract workers or those working part-time may be given shorter probationary periods. HR management software can automate probation periods when new employees join a business.

What are the benefits of probation periods?

If an employee joins your business knowing that they will be under close observation for a set period of time, it can act as a great way to encourage them to work hard and prove their worth, especially in a situation where the probation period is less than six months long.

Probation periods can also be useful for existing employees who have recently been promoted or moved into a new role within your organisation. take up a new role may also benefit from a probation period, during which their progress should be monitored closely.

Having a structured probation period with frequent reviews and chances to communicate can also ensure that expectations of both employees and employers are realistic and well-managed. Employees should expect to listen and act upon constructive criticism, whilst employers should endeavor to provide helpful feedback and guidance wherever possible.

What rights do employees on probation have?

Employees that are working whilst on a probationary period still retain statutory employment rights. As with all other employees within your business, they are entitled to at least the national minimum wage, their rights as defined under the working time directive, statutory sick pay (unless you operate an occupational sick pay scheme), and all family-related rights such as maternity and paternity leave, and time off for dependents.

Probationers are also protected against unlawful discrimination, detrimental treatment and automatically unfair dismissal in the same manner as all other employees.

However, many companies can and do choose to restrict work-related benefits during a period of probation, such as access to company-defined pension schemes, bonuses and shares.

The main difference in employment rights during a period of probation is the length of notice that needs to be provided on either side in order to terminate an employment contract. This depends entirely on the employment contract that your employee has signed, but a standard length of notice for an employee within a probationary period is around one week (as opposed to a month or longer on a permanent contract).

What responsibilities do I have to employees on probation?

Although probation periods partly exist in order to allow for easier termination of employment on both sides, should the arrangement not work out, the real aim behind them is to allow a new employee the time and practical experience that they need in order to settle in and work effectively within their new role.

If you have new employees that are currently working a probation period within your firm, you should ensure that you are fully supporting them to:

  • Know exactly what is expected from them during the probation period, and afterwards
  • Full develop the knowledge and skills that they need in order to fulfill their new role – this is achieved through adequate training and support
  • Address any problems with their performance and take steps to try and improve it prior to the end of the probation period
  • Investigate any grievances or incidents of bullying or harassment that are reported in the same manner as you would with any other member of staff

Can probation periods be extended?

The purpose of extending a probationary period is to allow an employee further time to improve his or her performance within their new role, to provide an employer with extra time to improve on training and development, and to allow for the development of competence should the scope or content of a role change during the original probation period.

Do you need to hold review meetings?

Holding regular, structured progress reviews during a period of probation is a good way of ensuring that both yourself and your employee understand exactly how they are progressing within the role.

For example, if you stipulate a period of three months’ probation for all new roles within your business, you could review their progress at the end of each month (or three times in total).

Prior to a review meeting, make sure that you have drafted notes on both the employee and their competence within the role – this should help to aid the flow of discussion between you. In general, you should look to discuss the employee’s thoughts and feelings on the role, their performance thus far, any areas for improvement or change, and to provide any guidance and support that they may need.

If you are satisfied with their progress and work, you should use the final review meeting as an opportunity to confirm that they have successfully passed their probation.

What happens if the employee or myself do not want to continue with the arrangement?

If a decision is taken on either side that the working arrangement is unsatisfactory, you are both within your rights to resign (on the part of the employee) or to dismiss (on the part of you as the employer).

If your employee decides that they do not wish to continue in the role, they must provide the standard amount of notice that you have stipulated within their contract for the probationary period. This is usually much less than for a permanent employee, but is often around one week. If they have already secured a new role and eager to leave quickly, you can negotiate for them to leave earlier if this arrangement suits you both.

If you decide that the employee is not working well within their role, it is good practice to try and allow them time to improve. Often, poor performance is not entirely the employee’s fault, so might want to extend the probationary period and provide additional training and support in order to help them to improve.

However, if you have reached the end of the period and you still feel that they are not suitable for the role, you are within your rights to terminate their employment. This is normally done by formally meeting with the employee, explaining the reasons behind your decision, and providing written notice. You should normally provide the employee with at least one weeks’ notice of their dismissal.

You should also note that the employee retains the right to accompanied by either a colleague or a trade union representative, and that you must allow them to present any objections to your decision, including any evidence of mitigating circumstances.