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

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

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

How long do you give new hires to prove themselves? Opinion varies.

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 percent of those surveyed said that they usually knew within two weeks whether entry-level hires make the cut.

Related article: Hiring Your First Employees: How to Go From Your Own Boss to the Boss

Sometimes it’s not the fault of the new employee 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. So-called rapid boarding, sink-or-swim approaches may sound competitive, but are not very cost effective.

According to Christina Merhar of Zane Benefits, every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs a company the equivalent of six to nine months of that person’s salary to recruit and train a new person (e.g., replacing a $40,000 a year employee costs $20,000 to $30,000). That’s not to mention costs related to lost productivity resulting 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 writes in the Harvard Business Review, “From a manager’s perspective, a new hire can’t come up to speed fast enough.” She quotes 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.”

Getting Employees Off to a Good Start

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

Before You Hire: Is This Really the Right Person for the Job?

Don’t hire based just on a gut feeling. Develop a list of the needed competencies and accept only those resumes that match. During the interview process, avoid general, “tell us about yourself” interview questions. Rather, probe what the candidates 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). Then, if presented with two or three equally qualified candidates who seem a good fit both with the position and your company culture, consult your gut.

Provide a Mentor

If your idea of effective training is a quick overview of what employees need to do, you’re setting them up for failure. Why? According to 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 questions and concerns of the new employee.

Develop an Onboarding Program

Given the costs of replacing new workers that don’t work out, money spent up front 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.

Set Reasonable Expectations and Check in Periodically

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

Give a New Hire Sufficient Time

Don’t adopt any hard and fast, 90 days or you’re out rules. 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’re doing. Whatever that time may be is the time for you and your new hire to sit down and discuss how things are going and what can be done to make sure people are doing what they should be able to.

Related article: How Companies Are Changing Their Culture to Attract (And Retain) Millennials

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