Recruiting new staff – or promoting from within for that matter – is never easy. Despite multiple interviews, numerous references and forensic inspection of CVs and covering letters there’s absolutely no guarantee your chosen person will prove to be suitable for the role; which is why probation periods matter so much.
Probation periods give you the opportunity to evaluate the new employee’s performance, commitment and general suitability for the role, and to take the necessary action if they are failing to meet the requirements. But how do you manage probations so that both you and the new recruit can benefit from them?
Set the length
Practices are free to set the length of a probationary period as there is no law dictating the rules. There is guidance suggesting that the employer ‘must be reasonable’ and it’s typical for a probation to last no longer than six months or possibly three months where an employee is moving to a new post internally or if the role is more basic or clerical. A recent discussion on the Practice Index Forum suggests that six months is the norm for new PMs.
Both you and the employee can walk away from the agreement at any point during this period.
Outline the standards
To give your recruit the best chance of passing their probation, there are a number of things you should do in order to be ‘reasonable’:
- Provide the employee with a clear job description
- Provide an overview of the general surgery practices and procedures
- Schedule any necessary training that will help the employee reach requirements
- Explain when the employee will be evaluated and what methods will be used
In order for you to assess your new employee, firstly you need to work out what you expect from them at the various stages throughout their probation. You can either do this from experience (how long did it take the last person who did the role to learn the ropes?) or by working out with people doing a similar role some suitable check points. Once that’s in place you should, according to various HR experts:
- Explain what you expect the recruit to achieve during the probationary period and thereafter
- Set out details of structured training, guidance and supervisory support
- Outline the standards of attendance and service expected
- Clearly state communication protocols, covering who to ask for advice, reporting structures, details of meetings, including one-to-ones
- Document how any problems with performance will be addressed
It’s up to management to ensure these checks are clearly described, easily measurable and attainable.
Guidance and flexibility
Set up weekly or monthly one-to-one meetings where you can run through the progress reports and offer feedback on the various aspects of their role explaining both the areas where they are excelling, and areas where they need improvement. It can help if the manager makes some notes before a meeting and those sessions should be fully documented and notes kept on file. Some practice managers even insist on employees and themselves signing these documents.
Whenever someone starts a new job it’s very difficult for them to know how they are getting on so try and offer guidance whenever possible. Always try to keep any criticism constructive and offer solutions to problems rather than just highlighting the fact they exist.
Getting feedback from the people they have been working closely with is another important stage of the probation period. Ask them to be frank and honest and then filter these findings back to the employee, anonymously of course. This could either bring them praise and build their confidence, or highlight areas in which they need to improve.
Don’t be afraid to adjust the various requirements as you get to know your employee better. If someone is struggling, try giving them something more attainable, and if someone is completing all the tasks with ease, offer something a bit more challenging to see how they cope.
If it doesn’t go to plan
Unfortunately, not every hire you make will prove to be a success and it’s important to spot when you have made a mistake and act on it.
This can start by having open and honest dialogue with the employee. Areas to think about here to help the situation include:
- Reinforce the areas where the employee is doing well as well as outlining what’s not going well, which should be supported with factual evidence
- Allow the opportunity for a response to see if there’s a plausible reason for underperformance – this will help a solution to be found
- Consider the need for extra training, guidance or mentoring
- Clearly state what will happen if standards aren’t improved
- Consider if you’ve set the expected requirements too high? Remember that everyone learns at different speeds and sometimes just a little patience is in order
Assessing the probationary period
Prior to the end of the probationary period a probationary review meeting should be held with the employee. Note that if you do not have this meeting by the agreed probationary period end date, it will result in the employee automatically passing their probationary period by default.
When reviewing the employee’s probationary period you should consider:
- The quality and accuracy of their work
- Their efficiency
- Their skills and knowledge
- Their attendance and timekeeping
- Their working relationships
Options at the end
At the end of the probationary period you have three options:
- Confirm their successful appointment
If you find your new employee’s performance to be satisfactory then you should confirm their successful appointment to the role in writing.
- Extend their probationary period
If you find your new employee’s performance is not satisfactory but you think they may reach the required standard with appropriate support and / or training, you can extend their probationary period.
You should discuss the reasons for this with the employee and agree a plan for improvement, including any actions that the employee and you will take.
The extension should be confirmed in writing specifying what is expected from them during the extended probationary period and when the extended period will end. If additional training or support for the employee has been agreed, it is advisable to state this in the written confirmation. It is also important to state that should the employee not meet the required standards during this extended period, their employment will be terminated.
- Terminate their employment
If you find your new employee’s performance is not satisfactory and it is clear that further training or support will not aid the employee in meeting the required standards, then you may need to consider dismissal. Legislation suggests you should use a fair and consistent procedure when dismissing an employee and seek qualified HR guidance if they are unsure at any stage.
ACAS adds that if the employer wants to dismiss the employee, it must handle the dismissal correctly and include:
- giving the correct notice – which must be at least the statutory minimum or any more favourable period set out in their employment contract
- paying any outstanding wages
- paying holiday pay for accrued annual leave that hasn’t been taken
- dismissing the employee fairly in line with the Acas code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures if they are a transferring employee has at least two years’ continuous employment with the employer
- dismissing the employee in line with any relevant contractual dismissal procedures.
Whilst an employee cannot claim unfair dismissal in the first two years of service, if you dismiss someone without going through a fair dismissal process an employee can claim wrongful dismissal, for which there is no length of service requirement.
Finally, sometimes when you’ll get the right person, but put them in the wrong job. Before cutting your losses, look around your practice to see if there is anywhere they would be more suitable.
We hope this guide helps, but do remember that it’s worth seeking specialist advice if you require guidance on any specific issues.
What are your experiences of probation periods? Have you any tips that you can share? Let us know by commenting below or in the forum here.
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