Probationary Periods - Making the Most of Them [Video]

Posted in : Back to Basics on 25 May 2016
Gareth Walls
A&L Goodbody LLP
Issues covered:

When is an employee not an employee? Recruitment of new staff is both expensive and time intensive, don't get it wrong! This video helps you ensure the probationary period is understood and used meaningfully.


We're going to talk now about probationary periods, and in particular how an employer should make the best use of a probationary period.

It's a common principle which is embodied in almost every contract of employment. But people frequently forget what the actual purpose of the probationary period is, and how best to use it. So let's consider what the purpose actually is.

After an employer has gone to the expense of recruiting and hiring an individual, the probationary period is really an opportunity to make sure that the employee is, in fact, fit for purpose. How do we do that?

Well, given the fact that we have invested significant amounts of time and effort in relation to the recruitment of the individual, this is initially addressed through an induction programme. It should be addressed also and reflected in the handbook and in the policy, which you want the employee to work with. They should understand the obligations and expectations of them, not just at the outset of employment, but in relation to the culture and ethos of the organisation which they're hopefully going to have a long and useful career in.

In relation to probationary periods, it's quite interesting to consider just the length of time which most employers seek to apply as such. In Great Britain the standard probationary period would be a three-month period. Whereas, in Northern Ireland, it appears that the standard period is in and around six months.

The key question then for an employer frequently is, can we extend the probationary period? That is also a very common practice. Extension of probationary period is not something we would necessarily recommend. The idea behind a probationary period is to use the time to, quite intensively monitor, train and supervise the individual and make sure that they are in fact fit for purpose and they are in fact going to be confirmed as a permanent employee.

If there is a desire to extend the probationary period, then arguably that may mean that the employer does not have suitable monitoring and supervision principles in place. Actually that would be our first piece of advice. Before we consider extending a probationary period, let's make sure the supervision is correct and place.

If you're going to extend, and frequently we may wish to, we would always say that you never extend beyond 12 months because to do so means that employee will get increased employee benefits and rights, as such. That may be an inadvertent concession by the employer, and actually, the focus must be again on a proper supervision of the employee during the probationary period.

If we're going to extend the probationary period at all, then it is imperative that you set some KPIs, make sure that they are achievable, make sure that they're measurable, etc. But fundamentally, put some monitoring in place for those probationary periods and make sure that the individual, who is performing the supervision, as well as the individual who is being supervised, have all the support and training that they need. So that both parties can ensure that the extension and the probationary period is for short as possible and is successful.

Never lose sight of the fact that the probationary period is there to ensure that, the time and effort and money we have invested in recruitment is to make sure the individual becomes a permanent employee. Consequently make sure that the KPIs are measurable and useful.

You should also factor in a review meeting, at least one review meeting, midway through the probationary period, to make sure that the employee is aware of the standards expected and, in fact, that the employee is given all the support and training and materials that they need, to provide and perform that suitably.

At the end of the review period, or the probationary period, however you want to term it, make sure that there is a meeting and make sure that there is an outcome that is either a success, in which case the individual is confirmed as moving from probationary period into permanency of employment. In frequent situations that means that certain additional terms and conditions of employment will apply. Maybe additional benefits. Certainly alternative ways to deal with disciplinary, grievance, etc. But those aspects need to be considered on a case-by-case basis and make sure that it's applied.

If, on the other hand, there is a potential for the probationary period to be a fail or indeed the extended probationary period to fail, that is obviously a situation whereby there needs to be more than one meeting. We have had to satisfy ourselves that we have given all parties every opportunity to satisfactorily complete. Now, if you're going to process to actually exit the employee, then that has to be conducted fairly.

There's a common misconception that employees who are working within a probationary period have effectively no employment rights, that is simply not correct. They may not have the full extent of employment rights, they may not have the ability to bring it on for a dismissal case, simply because of not having 12 months' service, for example. But that does not mean that they do not have significant other employment rights, fundamentally to include the ability to bring all written manner of claims in relation to potential discrimination.

Therefore, it is imperative that an employer ensures that we have a policy of monitoring supervision and support which is in place. A policy is no good without suitable training and it is certainly no good if your HR office manager, or whoever it is who is assigned to conduct the probationary period review process, is unaware of the process and cannot run it appropriately.

If worse comes to worst and we need to terminate the employment at the end of the probationary period, whether extended or not, make sure that we terminate fairly with a good paper trail and with an objective and reasoned decision making behind our process.

Make sure that the individual conducting the disciplinary process, such as it is, has one eye on the formal disciplinary process which the employer operates because, at the end of the day, we are an organisation. Your culture and the ethos needs to be upheld at every stage. And probationary period employees should not be considered as some kind of second-class citizen within the employment world.

In this way, and in relation to all the other aspects which I have discussed now, you can make the probationary period work for you and work for the organisation.

This article is correct at 25/05/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Gareth Walls
A&L Goodbody LLP

The main content of this article was provided by Gareth Walls. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 4466 or email

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