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View from HR: Know the purpose of your new hire probationary periods

A reader has asked me about new hire probationary periods, typically lasting 90 or 180 days. Good idea? Morale buster? How does this fit with “at-will” employment?

Most probationary periods are defensive in nature. The employer is usually saying, “During this 90 days, we will not give you the same warnings or conversations we give to regular employees. Early problems mean an early departure.”

Probationary periods can sound off-putting to an applicant. They may be crutches for managers to avoid having corrective conversations or investing time in a new hire to get him or her on track. All too often, underperformers are terminated days before expiration of the period.

Are probationary periods a good thing or a bad thing? Of course, it depends.

Defensive tool

If they are purely a defensive tool, and if managers avoid managing during the first 90 days, they are a bad thing. To waste time and dollars hiring a good candidate we ignore is bad for the business and bad for its reputation.

Probationary periods are also unnecessary overkill from a legal defense perspective. Counseling and termination practices can easily accommodate the need to act early on a bad fit without branding the first 90 days as a dicey high-wire act. Remember that at-will employment is just a legal defense, not a people management strategy.

Why should early problems in a new role be viewed primarily as opportunities to end the relationship early? Why not view the first few months on the job as a welcome period? Why should a manager’s obligations be less instead of more in those early days? Why shouldn’t this be the second phase of recruiting to ensure a thorough integration and foundation for success?

Companies that take full advantage of the typical post-hire honeymoon period will get a much more engaged employee in return. This is when an employee is open to guidance, least affected by complainers, unburdened by baggage, and unaware of the real and perceived hurdles. This is the time for a manager to create a productive and communicative relationship with the employee focused on the needs of the workplace and the employee.

Skin in the game

The next time a manager requests a new employee, place some serious obligations on that manager. Start with skin in the game during the hiring process, and continue with an actively managed welcome period. Milestones, specific events, clear expectations, required conversations, a third person’s review of the process – any combination of these methods will encourage or force maximization of these first few months.

A manager who cannot handle the extra work should not manage new employees. Think of the work they shuffle off to others through mismanagement of new hires, and the turnover or ineffectiveness that results.

Probationary periods can serve several legitimate purposes. It makes sense to decide the purpose of yours or make changes. Employees applying to companies with probationary periods should ask, “What will my manager do to help me become successful?” Make that your interview question when they give you the opening!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit