Rethinking the Probationary Period

Probationary periods are a familiar if uncomfortable concept: That first 60 or 90 days of a new job when your performance feels like it’s under a microscope, your benefits haven’t begun yet, and everything about the workplace is unfamiliar. Needless to say, that period of time is rarely remembered with fondness.

Destabilizing a new employee for the first 90 days of employment doesn’t seem like the best retention strategy.  So, why is the probationary period so common? Does it serve a legitimate purpose, or is there a better way to set your new employee up for success?

Any discussion of probationary periods must begin with the legal doctrine of employment-at-will.  At-will employment provides employers and employees with the right to end the employment relationship at any time, for any legal reason.  Recognized in most states, employment at will confers the freedom to employers to just call the whole thing off, as the song goes. Employers can terminate for good reason or bad reason, but of course, not for an illegal reason.  And importantly, this relationship and the freedoms it brings begins on the first day of employment.

Probationary periods don’t extend any additional flexibility to terminate new employees, but they can be useful for other reasons.  The first 60 or 9- days of employment could be seen as a helping period, one whose goal is to provide a soft landing to new hires in their new position.  Better thought of as an introductory period, the employer could use the first 60 or 90 day period to lighten standards and expectations while the new hire is acclimating to his or her new job, gaining important insights, learning how to maneuver within the organization, and generally establishing his or her sea legs.  Once the 60 or 90 day period has expired, employees should receive preliminary feedback as a best practice.

After finding the perfect hire, it’s critical to focus on retention.  Rethinking the probationary period is just one strategy for polishing a successful hiring process and ensuring that your organization receives long-term rewards from your recruiting investment.