How Do You Manage Employee Probation Periods? Part One

By setting a probationary period, as an employer, you can let newly recruited employees know that their performance will be under continuous review during the first weeks and months of employment. It also lets them know that their continued employment is subject to them completing the probationary period. This can help you to manage the employee’s expectations and their relationship with you, as their employer.

Length of Probationary Period

The length of a probationary period will depend on the position and your requirements. A role requiring a high degree of skill and responsibility is likely to need a longer probationary period than one with limited skills or responsibility. Probationary periods are typically between three and six months.

You should set out in writing to your employee that the position is subject to satisfactory completion of a probationary period. You should also specify the length of the probationary period, how progress will be monitored and reviewed and that the probationary period may be extended.

It is important for you to set out employees’ roles and responsibilities at the outset and to go through a comprehensive induction process.

It is advisable for you to hold frequent review meetings or one-to-ones with your new employees to provide progress updates, encouragement and support and to identify training needs. If performance issues are identified during the probationary period, you should consider whether or not extra training or coaching would be appropriate, rather than leaving it to the end of the probationary period before addressing performance issues.

Statutory Employment Rights

Probationary periods have no legal status and an employee who is on probation has the same statutory employment rights as other employees. It is the length of continuous service that defines an employee’s statutory employment rights, including his or her rights in the event of dismissal.

Probationers are entitled to:

  • the national minimum wage
  • statutory sick pay
  • rights under the Working Time Regulations
  • annual leave entitlement
  • family-related rights in the same way as other staff.

Dealing with Disciplinary Issues

Employers often don’t apply their formal disciplinary procedure to employees on probation. To avoid ambiguity, where you do not want to follow your full procedure, you should make clear, in writing, in the contract and/or disciplinary procedure, that there is no contractual obligation for you to do so.

As probationers do not normally have sufficient service to claim unfair dismissal, they cannot challenge the procedural fairness of a dismissal in the employment tribunal.

However, a probationer could claim that a dismissal was for an automatically unfair reason or for reasons that amount to unlawful discrimination. Therefore, where an employee on probation is suspected of misconduct, you should investigate further before taking action. If you prejudge the situation and dismiss the employee without going through your disciplinary process and giving the employee the opportunity to explain his or her version of events, this could increase the risk of a claim of unlawful discrimination or automatically unfair dismissal. You will be in a better position to argue that the reason for dismissal was the employee’s misconduct if you investigated the matter and can show reasons behind its decision to dismiss.

Extending the Probationary Period

Where an employee has not reached the required standard of performance by the end of the probationary period but you recognise that there is potential for improvement, you might choose to extend the probationary period. The right for an employer to extend the probationary period should be set out in the contract or offer letter, which should also make clear the terms and conditions that will apply during the extension period.

The extension should be for a reasonable period, taking into account how long it might take him or her to complete an improvement plan. You should discuss your employee’s performance and why you are extending the probationary period with him or her and allow the employee to put forward any explanation for the performance issues.

The extension should be agreed and arranged before the original probationary period ends.

Sickness Absence

Sickness absence during a probationary period will need to be monitored and managed in the usual way. Where the absence is frequent and/or long term, this may make it difficult for you to assess the employee’s performance during the course of the probationary period because of their reduced attendance.

You will need to consider whether to: terminate the contract due to the employee’s failure to complete the probationary period satisfactorily; extend the probationary period to give the employee more time to demonstrate his or her suitability for the job; or confirm the employee in post regardless of the absence.

You should investigate the sickness absence to find out if it is due to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. If it is, but you dismiss the employee for failing to complete the probationary period satisfactorily, they may have grounds to bring a disability discrimination claim. You would need to be able to justify your actions.

In part two of this series of blogs, we’ll look at what to do if all goes well through the probation period and you decide to keep your new employee on. If you need any advice now about how to handle probation periods, get in touch by emailing or calling me on 0118 940 3032.