Let's Discuss Employee Probationary Periods

Date: July 27, 2016

Originally published in Association TRENDS, May-June 2016.

When advising associations on employment policies, I'm often asked, “How long should the probationary period be?” My answer:“It really doesn't matter,” followed by, “. . . so long as it is actually utilized.” Whether a probationary period is 30 days or 6 months, whatever period is adequate to demonstrate skill acquisition and work habits, the most important issue is whether the employer actually uses the time to review the work and make a reasoned go or no-go forward employment decision. Another comment I hear when defending termination cases is, “That employee should have been terminated long ago.” Typically, the deficiencies leading to termination were observed when the individual was a new employee. Often employers create probationary periods, yet fail to reap the intended benefit.

So what are the benefits? First, basic fairness: the employee is placed on notice not to rush out and make big purchases – the job is not a bird in hand. Also, there is a popular opinion that an employer has more “right” to end employment early on. In termination litigation, employers are generally given far wider latitude by courts to make subjective judgment calls as to an employee's capability, when the employment period has been short.

Another benefit is the ability to early determine whether the employer has made a good investment. I use the word “investment,” because the hiring of a single clerical employee (assume a $45,000.00 annual salary) with an average employment period of three years, represents at least a $150,000.00 investment, inclusive of taxes and benefits. It just makes sense to early and decisively determine whether the investment is well made.

For many associations, the end of the probationary period passes without any analysis as to the employee's performance. This is understandable since once an employee has been hired, associations naturally want to avoid the hassle of recruiting another employee. There is a natural bias against repeating the hiring process, even if the first hire was clearly marginal. Some front line supervisors default to accepting a mediocre employee, rather than deal with the interpersonal discomfort of terminating an employee. These behaviors allow mediocre employees to stumble into permanent status.

The best solution is an association's resolve for decisive and early decision-making; that employees demonstrating only a B- or merely C+ performance during the probationary period should not continue, even if the employee has “not done anything wrong.” Front line supervisors should be required to affirmatively justify why an employee should continue past probation. The short term reluctance to engage in a second job search should not override the long term benefit of decisive association action.

Sometimes associations engage in the process of “extending probation.” It seldom works, and usually delays the inevitable. Admittedly, there are isolated examples of employees who went from poor to better. However, this is usually a long shot, and the odds of beneficial employment are enhanced by early and decisive probation decisions.