Probation periods: essential guide for hiring managers

We explain how to design a probation policy to weed out unsuitable employees while there’s still time, and to grow the best crop of talent for your business.

Our experts

We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality.
Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Probation is essentially a trial period for new recruits. During their probationary period, managers assess the employee’s performance. This allows both parties to judge the recruit’s suitability for the role, and ability to meet the standards expected of them.

Depending on your company policies, the specific timeframe and benchmarks of a probation period may vary. That’s why many businesses use project management software to design a set of probation objectives that complements their onboarding strategy.

While there is an element of creative freedom to measuring the success of a probationary period, there are still legal requirements the company must stick to – particularly concerning the sensitive topic of dismissal.

Below, we’ll explain the ins and outs of implementing and reviewing a probationary policy. By the end, you’ll have a tangible method to discern if someone has the right skills, attitude and behaviour to pass, or fail, probation.

What is a probation period?

During probation, a new hire joins a company for a temporary period. Throughout this time, the business will closely monitor their work to decide if they are a good fit for the job, before passing or failing their probation assessment.

Probationary periods are like a first date. They offer employers and employees the chance to get to test their compatibility during the worker’s first few months in their role, and see how well they deliver on the skills or performance they promised during their initial interview.

So what’s the difference between an employee on probation, and an employee who has passed?

While on probation, someone will normally have a shorter notice period of one week. If either side decides they don’t want to continue a working relationship with each other, they can then exit with (hopefully) no hard feelings.

How long a probation period lasts will vary depending on the business. Typically they cover between one and six months depending on the level of seniority or type of role.

  • 1 month for an entry-level job, such as retail, where you’ll easily spot if the employee is going to work out
  • 2 months for a job where the employee needs time to learn new skills or meet productivity goals
  • 3 months for professional, team-based roles like managers or sales executives. You may want to see how well they assimilate

Why do you need probation periods?

An advantage of putting a new hire on probation is that you can establish specific milestones for the employee to reach. Hitting these probation objectives will demonstrate a positive onboarding process.

For example, a marketing company might ask a new junior executive to successfully create and deliver a campaign of press releases as part of their objectives.

At the end of the trial period, the agency can review the progress made by the executive to see if they ‘passed' the probation. All being well, their employment continues, and the business can be confident that they have found the right recruit for a position.

Probationary periods are also a form of insurance for the employer if a new hire hasn’t worked out as hoped. During probation, the employer can waive some employment perks while the worker learns the job.

Crucially, that includes termination. Employees within their probationary period won't have worked the minimum two years to qualify for unfair dismissal protection. That means both sides can speedily terminate the worker’s contract if they choose and avoid hiring regret.

What does the employee get from a probation process?

It sounds one-sided, but probations are mutually beneficial. Employees can also use their probation period to confirm they haven’t been missold the role. They can get an idea of the workload, organisational culture, and see if they work well with managers and colleagues.

Because probationary employees are being closely monitored by managers, companies should also view this time as important for the trainee’s learning and development.

Legal requirements for probation periods in the UK

First off: there is no legal requirement to have a probationary period for new employees.

However, if you include any mention of a probation period in your employment contract, those terms will become legally binding.

Include a clause in your contracts that defines the probationary terms clearly and covers the following topics:

  1. Length of probation period plus details on notice period, and potential length of extension
  2. Performance expectations during probation (ie. job responsibilities, work hours, attendance, and any other relevant expectations)
  3. Criteria to evaluate the employee during the probationary period (ie. job-specific goals, behavioural expectations, and performance metrics)
  4. Steps taken if benchmarks are not met (ie. additional training, closer supervision, or termination of employment)
  5. Process for performance reviews and feedback meetings (employees on probation are entitled to receive feedback and evaluation on their performance)

What are the employer's obligations during a probation period?

You can’t completely throw out the employment rulebook during probation. Staff on probation should be treated like any other during the trial phase. For example, they should still receive minimum wage and be given rest breaks.

Once an employee has been employed for over one month, the statutory minimum notice period is one week. If the worker resigns or you let them go, you must still pay their notice period, as well as any remaining holiday entitlement.

The company must also take appropriate steps to ensure a fair and productive evaluation process. Any concerns over performance must be raised promptly, and adequate training should be provided to give the employee a fair chance to learn the role.

Having a properly managed probation is the best way to ensure you are meeting your obligations as an employer. Work expectations and goals should be decided during hiring, and communicated to the employee to ensure mutual understanding from the get go.

Can I dismiss an employee on probation?

While probationary employees have fewer protections against firing compared to regular employees, the business must still follow a legal process if they choose to sack a worker on probation.

Reasoning for the termination must be given. Employers cannot fire staff for a protected characteristic (like age, gender, race, religion, or disability).

Maintaining accurate and detailed records of the employee's performance, feedback, and evaluations during the probationary period will protect the employer against accusations of discrimination. These records can be crucial if there are disputes or legal issues.

Setting probation objectives

Whether or not an employee passes their probation will depend on their ability to meet their probation objectives.

Probation objectives protect the interests of both the employer and employee – they should work as a non-subjective framework for proving a successful probation period has been reached. Equally, to avoid a contentious call on failing someone’s probation, clear objective targets are an essential support.

When recruiting for a position, companies should have a list of targets established before a hire is even made, so that the newbie knows exactly what success looks like in their new team and role.

These should align not just with the day-to-day duties of the job, but also the overall objectives of the department or team. This helps individuals to understand how they are contributing to the organisation's growth aims, keeping them motivated and ensuring buy-in.

You can use the objectives and key results (OKR) framework to set targets that align with this criteria.

How to set SMART probation objectives

It’s easy for things to go awry during probation. Employees are being introduced to a new office culture, colleagues, and way of working. This means they can be liable to getting distracted or lost in the scale of new things to take on.

Setting a SMART objective (or SMART goal) is an easy way to provide direction to a new recruit. Via the SMART framework, all goals are formatted as a one-line mission statement that’s:

  • Specific (describes a focused, clear target to aim for)
  • Measurable (includes a metric used to judge progress)
  • Achievable (can be achieved with the resources you have available)
  • Relevant (aligns with your overall business or team strategy)
  • Time-bound (has a set timeframe to work within)

As an example, here are two hypothetical SMART probation objectives for an individual who has just started their role as office manager at a marketing agency:

Target 1 – Achieve a 10% reduction in office expenses compared to the previous quarter, within the three months of the probation period.

Why is it SMART?

This SMART objective clearly asks the individual to reduce office-related expenses within a set timeframe. The metric of a 10% reduction is not overly ambitious, and is also relevant to both the office manager's responsibilities and the agency's financial goals.

Target 2 – Ensure that 100% of new hires within the three months of the probation period complete their onboarding checklist within their first week.

Why is it SMART?

This SMART objective clearly asks the individual to improve efficiency in the onboarding process, within a set timeframe. The metric of 100% makes sense, and is also relevant to improving the efficiency of the office and ensuring a smooth start for new team members.

Managing performance during a probation period

The key to a successful probationary period is good performance management from the start. But there is ‘no one size fits all’ when monitoring probation, which is why a customisable project management tool is so useful.

Bosses can build a unique dashboard that analyses the entire trial period, and creates employee probation reports with grades, feedback, and comments. This method eliminates guesswork, by providing data-led insights for the employee to develop their performance or correct their conduct.

A personal touch is still required for any managerial relationship. Supervisors should adopt a coaching leadership style and host regular one-to-one meetings to build a positive rapport with the employee.

Team leaders could also use a specialist responsibility visualisation aid, such as a Gantt chart or RACI chart, to determine how often they will review and update probation objectives (usually around once a quarter to align with a typical three-month probation timeframe).

That’s not to encourage updates for the sake of it. But – particularly in today’s business landscape – circumstances are continuously changing. Organisational goals can quickly become irrelevant, and it’s vital to ensure employee targets align.

Requesting monthly feedback throughout probation will help managers to evaluate if their initial objectives still complement the employee's role and company needs.

Passing or failing an employee's probation

We’ll start with the good news. If a person has passed their probation with flying colours, congratulations! You officially have a new employee to welcome to the team.

Human resource workers should confirm the news via a written letter, highlighting the employee’s new entitlements such as the new notice period. Managers may also wish to hold a meeting with the employee to set new, long-term objectives.

Sadly, not every employee will have such a smooth entry. If you are forced to fail an employee during probation, you should follow the below step-by-step instructions as a minimum expectation:

Step 1: Send a written invite for the employee to attend a probationary review meeting. Tell them that you are considering ending their contract due to their underperforming

Step 2: Confirm the employee has a right to bring a colleague or trade union representative to the meeting

Step 3: Provide evidence to support your concerns, such as inability to meet probation objectives

Step 4: Invite the employee to respond to or appeal the issues that you raise

Step 5: Decide whether to terminate or extend their probation. Whether via a letter or via email, confirm the outcome in writing to ensure the reasons for the decision are documented in the event of a conflict post-employment

The above will keep you within the law, but managers can go further to make sure they are taking an empathetic – not just legal – approach to a probation fail. Put yourself in the shoes of the person hearing the news when deciding the “right” way to deliver difficult news.

Andy Mulder is Head of People at MVF, a global tech firm. Mulder says the motto of any good probation process should be ‘no surprises'.

“Always speak to the person first,” he says. “Let them know that you need to arrange a meeting to talk about their probation and let them know if there is a risk this could result in a probation failure.

“If you do this on a foundation of strong ongoing feedback, the meeting invite is then only a confirmation of what they already know.”

Mulder points to this approach as proof the firm is using probation as a chance for people to make improvements, not an emergency exit button to part company at the first sign of a problem.

“If you make your expectations clear from day one, provide ongoing feedback, offer support and document your decisions, you will be running a strong probation process,” adds Mulder.

🚨 Remember, the Equality Act 2010 still applies to staff members during the probation period, so it’s important to back up your reason for dismissal.

While people cannot bring an unfair dismissal claim until they have two years of service, they can bring discrimination and wrongful dismissal claims immediately so no dismissal decision is ever free from risk.

What if an employee is on probation as part of a promotion?

Some employers also use the probation period to trial a member of staff who has been newly promoted. This is a trickier situation if the employee has more than two year’s continuous service as they will have greater protection against unfair dismissal.

More commonly, failing a promotion probation will see the worker be demoted back to their previous role. Communicate the consequences to your employee at the start of the promotion to avoid any awkward outcomes.

Can you end a probation period early?

It is certainly possible to end an employee’s probation early. However, to do so should be a last resort where you feel that your recruit is grossly unsuited to the role and you must terminate their contract for the good of the business.

The trial period is for getting to know your recruit. They need time to get to grips with the role, so take an empathetic approach during this critical period. It’s also in the firm’s best interests to hold onto a new hire. Heightened staff turnover costs time and money, most of which is lost through recruitment costs.

If the worker makes a mistake, evaluate how well they learn from the experience rather than immediately jumping to dismissal. Consider it only if the employee:

  • Is making such slow progress they they are impeding the team
  • Has exhibited unacceptable behaviour that conflicts with the company’s core values
  • Has committed an act of misconduct like violence, theft, or fraud

Extending a probation period

Everyone deserves a second chance. If, at the end of an employee’s probation period, you feel they haven’t met your review criteria, it is perfectly acceptable to extend the probationary timeframe if you feel the individual has potential to succeed.

According to research by Spring Personnel, absence is the most common reason for failing probation. Sometimes this can be due to an employee’s long-term sickness, which might be due to a protected characteristic, including a disability. Or, it can even be caused by the manager being on leave, jeopardising the new hire’s onboarding journey.

In this scenario, a boss might decide to extend a probation to give the employee more time to prove their aptitude for the role. Examine the individual’s targets to see if they might need adjusting for SMART success.

Employees should be informed of a probation period extension by letter. The length is often one month, but you can extend month-by-month if you think the employee still needs more time.

Conclusion

In today’s calamitous labour market, every manager looks forward to the day you can pass an employee’s probation and officially toast the success of your recruitment campaign. Unfortunately, as this guide shows, getting there is not always smooth sailing.

Probation provides a safety net for hiring managers, as a way to test drive a new hire with fewer legal commitments. But keep in mind that it is not a ‘free pass’ to fire any imperfect employee. The main purpose of probation is to help you smooth the transition between recruitment and full-time employment, and ensure you find the best talent for a position.

There is no way to guarantee an employee will meet the unique standards of your business. Setting SMART objectives, and using project management software to supervise, will certainly ease the process.

Onboarding is a critical period for new employees, so it’s worth putting the effort in early. Doing so can be the difference between making short-lived hires that scuttle the business, to developing a raft of future leaders who can steer it towards success.

Probation FAQs
  • Are probation periods a legal necessity?
    Employers are not legally obligated to have an employment probationary period. But they can be useful as an insurance policy in the event your new hire turns out to be a bad fit, so it’s rare that companies choose to forego them.
  • How long should a probation period be?
    Most probation periods last between one and six months. Usually, the longer the probation period, the more time required to adjust to the role (senior members may need several months to adapt to their position, while an entry-level worker may need just a few days).
  • Can you extend a probation period?
    Yes. Most companies add in a clause to their probation policy around extension, in the event that the manager needs more time to judge how well an employee has adapted to the role. Any guidelines on extensions must be clearly laid out in the employee contract, however.
  • Do you have to give an employee notice when ending their probation period?
    The business should give the employee advance warning if they are planning to dismiss an employee. Invite them to a meeting to discuss any evidence-backed concerns you have about performance. If you decide not to extend the probation, confirm the outcome in writing.
Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

Leave a comment

Leave a reply

We value your comments but kindly requests all posts are on topic, constructive and respectful. Please review our commenting policy.

Back to Top