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Managing probationers

Courtney Mc Nish IR/HR Specialist… Thursday, June 15 2017

The traditional employment probation may be best defined as that pre-confirmation period when a person is monitored and even tested, to determine his/ her suitability for confirmation in the position which was offered and accepted. This period is usually applicable to the engagement of new employees whether the employment status is intended to be permanent or on a fixed-term basis.

I am, however, aware that in some companies, even existing employees may be promoted on probation. For the record, I do not agree with this practice, as I believe it highlights a marked weakness in the internal succession planning and performance management systems.

Most companies, by either policy or collective agreement, establish probationary periods between three-six months.

However, it is not unusual that for some very highlevel positions, the period could be as long as 1 year.

During the probation, the worker should be carefully monitored and guided on the fundamental requirements of his/her role. This allows the employer to determine if the employee’s skill-sets, aptitude and cultural orientation meet the standards established. These requirements are consistent with the objective of facilitating the newly recruited with the wherewithal to allow him/her to succeed in the position.

So, in essence, the probationary period is an extension of the recruitment process, as this is part of the final phase of selection.

Within the period, both parties engage in the ‘getting to know you’ rituals, accompanied by the proverbial ‘hand-holding’ and coaching.

Orientation is therefore the first phase of the probation, where it is expected that the employee will demonstrate an eagerness to learn and assimilate information. The employer’s role is to give a proper introduction to company and department specific systems and policies and expected standards of conduct. An uneventful orientation and welcoming, now referred by HR professionals to as the “on boarding,” is often an indication that the probationary period will most likely be successful.

The duration of the probation period is therefore crucial. It must be sufficient to allow proper assessment, measurement and determination by both parties.

Regardless of its duration, the entire period must be considered as part of the overall length of service of the employee, once confirmation occurs.

Let me now explain briefly the responsibilities of the parties during that period.

The employee should ensure that he/she abides by the terms of the Contract of Employment, observes all work-rules and complies with company policies.

Since it’s a period of coaching and learning, the employee should point out to the employer any area in which he/she may be experiencing difficulty.

The employee is well advised to dispel any reluctance to ask questions and seek clarifications.

Such reluctance may create a revolving trap of ignorance which could lead to an extension of the probationary period or his/her non-confirmation.

The responsibilities of the employer include providing the guidelines, as well as, coaching during the period. The employer should ensure the employee has the resources and establish feedback sessions with the employee to give him/her the best possible chance to succeed.

A formal mid-probationary assessment should be completed, requiring the employee’s signoff.

During this and the final assessment, the employer must be careful to ensure that any performance concerns discussed were previously brought to the worker’s attention during earlier feedback sessions.

Many employers are often misguided by the contents of the standard termination clause in employment contracts. Some assume that it gives them the right to fire “at will” during the probationary period. However, this is furthest from the truth and brings to mind the finding of the Industrial Court in a case involving one of our leading financial institutions.

In this case, a probationer was dismissed and the Court determined among other things, that the training time was insufficient and that the Company failed to complete a formal performance assessment at the mid-period even though the worker was told that this would happen at the start of his employment.

The Court concluded that: “the worker never had a fair opportunity during his probationary period. There were gaps in his training. According to his evidence he did not have the benefit of coaching, even after he was given an unfavourable assessment. On the evidence before us we find that the Worker’s dismissal was harsh and oppressive and contrary to the principles and practices of good industrial relations.” There are two points to note here. Firstly, a probationer is still legally a worker and has access to the Industrial Court to seek redress. Accordingly, the probationer’s treatment must always be in accordance with good industrial relations practices.

The second point is that the probationary period is to serve specific purposes and the employer must show evidence that those purposes were satisfied one way or the next during the period.

It’s therefore in the best interest of both the company and the probationer that the proper steps are taken and the correct course of action is adopted during the probationary period.

Employers are well advised to exercise patience and empathy at every step. Utilise the option to extend the period instead of termination, if uncertain about suitability. The extension provides both parties with another bite of the cherry. On the other hand, the probationer must be alert, diligent and compliant with the guidance and feedback received.

Always keep in mind, the reality that both parties are on trial during the probationary period.



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