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90 Days to Prove Yourself: The Power of a Probationary Period

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

How long should employees have to prove themselves? Some say it can take as long as 18 months. Here's why probationary periods can work.

  • Employees who have gone through the probation period are often able to achieve more in their new roles.
  • The probation period allows an employee to evaluate whether they are suited for their new role and comfortable with the terms of employment.
  • The probation period also helps your company determine whether your new recruits require further training.

How long should you give new hires to prove themselves? Opinions vary.

The late Silicon Valley executive Rajiv Dutta maintained it could take a year to 18 months before a manager learns what a new employee can or cannot do. But according to a Fullbridge study of some 400 large company executives, as reported in BenefitsPRO, the average trial period is three months, and 27% of those surveyed said they usually knew within two weeks whether entry-level hires made the cut.

Sometimes it's not the new employee's fault that things aren't working out; the employer may not be able to effectively assess that person's capabilities and suitability for the job or provide support for the new employee in the role. Rapid-boarding, sink-or-swim approaches may sound competitive, but they are not very cost-effective.

According to Christina Merhar of Zane Benefits, every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs the equivalent of six to nine months of that person's salary to recruit and train a new person. For example, replacing an employee who made $40,000 a year costs $20,000 to $30,000. That's not to mention costs related to lost productivity from having an ineffective employee and the co-workers who have to deal with the new employee's inability to do the required work, and then start the learning curve all over again with a replacement.

But as Sara Stibitz wrote in the Harvard Business Review, "From a manager's perspective, a new hire can't come up to speed fast enough." She quoted management consultant Dick Grote, author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals: "If you want people to perform well, you have to get them off to a good start."

How might you ensure that new employees not only get off to a good start, but can prove themselves up to speed and worthy of their positions in three months or less?

1. Before you hire, ask if this is really the right person for the job.

Don't hire based just on a gut feeling. Develop a list of the necessary competencies, and only accept resumes that match them. During the interview process, avoid general "tell us about yourself" questions; instead, probe to learn what the candidate knows and has put into practice as it relates to the desired competencies. In many cases, it may be worth the price of hiring a recruiting firm to do the pre-screening (as long as you are specific about what you need to screen for).

If presented with two or three equally qualified candidates who seem a good fit for both the position and your company culture, then you can consult your gut.

2. Provide a mentor.

If your idea of effective training is a quick overview of what the employee needs to do, you're setting them up for failure. According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, "Newcomers often feel a strong pressure to prove themselves quickly, and they fear that (1) asking questions might reveal their ignorance and (2) engaging in exploratory conversations with colleagues might distract them from producing results right away."

Foster an environment where asking questions is encouraged. Better yet, assign a mentor charged with answering the questions and addressing the concerns of the new employee.

3. Develop an onboarding program.

Given the costs of replacing new hires who don't work out, the upfront investment to properly train and familiarize new employees with their job responsibilities and performance requirements is money well spent.

"Every company, regardless of its size, needs to do all it can to leverage their new employees, given the high costs of recruiting and relocation, which can cost on average more than $30,000 per hire," notes an Allied Workforce Mobility Survey.

4. Set reasonable expectations and check in periodically.

Don't overburden a new worker with tasks; allow some time for them to get the lay of the land. Once a new hire gains confidence in performing a limited set of tasks, you can expand their responsibilities. Involve co-workers to support that process. At the start, check in frequently and early to see how things are going, what problems are encountered, and how those problems can best be solved.

5. Give a new hire sufficient time.

Don't adopt any hard-and-fast rules, like "90 days or you're out." People adjust differently to different kinds of challenges. The best rule of thumb is to ask people who perform similar jobs how long it took them to feel truly comfortable and competent in what they do. After that time period is the best time for you and your new hire to sit down and discuss how things are going and what you both can do to make sure they can accomplish their tasks.

Pro and cons of a 30-day probationary period

Here are some of the advantages of a probation period for a business and its new employees, according to The HR Booth:

Training and support

The 30-day probation period gives additional time for the recruit to gain training with the support of management. While the onboarding process involves learning, this time is an opportunity for new employees to raise their concerns and ask questions.

Time to review decision

The probation period gives both the company and the recruit enough time to determine whether they made the right decision. The company can assess the new employee's skills and determine whether they are suited for the role. On the other hand, the employee has enough time to decide whether they are ready to take up the position. If any of the parties wish to terminate the contract, they can do it within 30 days.

The 30-day probation period has some disadvantages as well, though:

Lower employee motivation

New employees are often under a lot of pressure to perform exceptionally well or else lose their job. This may lower their morale and reduce their confidence in their work. According to Bizfluent, new recruits who work with very skilled employees feel undervalued.

Risk

Both the company and the recruit face certain risks during the probation period. The company risks revealing crucial confidential information to an employee who may leave after 30 days. Some organizations have reported theft from their new employees.

Employees also face the risk of injury, especially in manual labor roles, for a job they may not keep. They also face the risk of leaving their current employer only to be dissatisfied by the terms of the new workplace and have to leave.

Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images
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