Fixer: What's the point of probation?

29 Mar 2018 By PM Editorial

Is there still a probation period following a promotion?

Is there any point in probation periods – particularly when someone has been promoted? If someone has more than two years’ service and receives a promotion, what does probation really mean? Can they have an unsuccessful probation period if their performance in their new role isn’t up to scratch? If someone is demoted within their probation period, what claims can they make, particularly if this happens without good reason?

I’ll lay my cards on the table here: I hate probation periods. I see no reason to have them, don’t believe they work and fear they can actually be detrimental by obscuring bad management practice behind a layer of pointless bureaucracy. I have always advised businesses against them and have only ever used them myself in highly technical roles where it hasn’t been possible to test the skills and proficiency of a new starter before they joined.

Probation has no legal standing as a concept, but that’s only the start of the problem. Whether applied to a new hire or someone you’ve promoted, you are beginning with a fundamental psychological imbalance by telling them: ‘We’re not quite sure we’ve got this right – so we’ll see how it works out.’ That’s demotivating just at the time you need someone to come in with all guns blazing.

What people need in a new role is support, clear development opportunities and an effective performance management process. If you haven’t got those mechanisms in place, you are setting staff up to fail and a probation period becomes even more academic. In the case of a promotion, the individual needs a conversation that makes it clear they will be supported and trusted to step up, but also honesty about any areas they need to develop in, and an idea of when and how their performance will be reviewed.

If they don’t meet certain standards, and don’t respond to additional support, they can be demoted or moved to a different role as long as performance management processes are adhered to. But if they’ve been with you for two years or more they have full employment rights, which means they could claim unfair or constructive dismissal if things haven’t been handled properly. Ultimately, who you select for the role and how you set them up is far more important than what you call their first weeks or months.

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