Let’s start with a little history…
The “probationary period” was started as a way for employers to deal with Unions and their rules governing new employees. This short, introductory period was established to allow the employer to terminate a union employee without concern for just cause without having to fight the union on it.
What is has come to mean today…
A “probationary period”…typically 90 days…is a “test drive” for employers to see if the new employee is really a fit for the job or not. The assumption is that if the employer decides they are not a fit for the company before the 90 days is completed, they can simply terminate the employee and wipe their hands of it.
Not so fast…
1) In most cases, the employer is not protected from then having to pay unemployment to said employee,
2) Depending on how the probationary period is worded to the employee, there runs the chance of creating an “implied agreement” that the employee has a job at the end of the probationary period, and
3) This does not – I repeat – does not exempt the employer from still documenting performance issues and counseling the employee on their performance during the probationary period.
First point: Unemployment
In the State of Illinois, an employer becomes the “chargeable party” after the employee has worked for them for 30 days…meaning, even if you use the “we told then there was a 90-day probationary period” angle, you are not exempt. The first 30 days are key because attitudes and patterns can be uncovered to determine whether or not the employee is a “fit” for the company if the managers are spending time with and observing the new employee. The next 60 days in a probationary period should be used to further tweak and streamline the employee.
Second point: Implied Agreement
How are you wording your “probationary period” in your Employee Handbook or in the employee’s Offer for Employment? Take a good look at it right now. Employees know they are being taught and guided during their first 90 days but there is an assumption that they will have a job after 90 days. Most simply believe that completion of the time period simply means a rate increase and/or benefit availability.
Some employers have started to use “Introductory Period” instead. This gives the same impression if not specifically stated that continued employment is contingent on successfully completely the introductory period to the satisfaction of the employer.
Third point: No documentation or Follow-up
Another mistake many employers make is relying too heavily on the “at will employment” many states have – meaning, your employer can terminate your employment at any time without cause. This does not protect the company from unemployment filings or wrongful termination lawsuits if proper steps have not been taken.
This is especially important with new employees and if you use the “probationary period” as a condition of employment. Supervisors should still be documenting any issue that arises so that evidence exists to argue any such cases and to use while drafting a performance review. Stay away from generalizations in reviews and disciplinary actions. Always – always – provide specific instances (issue, date, location, who involved) as well as what was discussed with the employee to correct or improve. Employers need to show that they tried everything that they could do to make the situation work to protect itself.
In my opinion:
The use of Probationary Periods, when used properly, encourages the new employee to learn their job quickly and adjust to their new environment so that a continued relationship will be the end result. This is also good to use in salary negotiations, giving the employee a bump in pay rate for successfully completing the probationary period…give them a goal to work towards while adjusting to their new position.
Make sure all your supervisors are educated, however, on what a Probationary Period really is and how they are to conduct themselves during this time frame. They need to be advised not to make any verbal promises – or threats – and to treat the new employee just as they would current employees when it comes to disciplinary actions.
Companies – and their supervisors – also play a role in the success of an employee…and don’t forget it!