Trial Periods for New Employees - Why They Matter

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A client called me the other day about a recently recruited employee who wasn't making the grade.
He wanted to know whether it was permissible to extend his trial period for a further three months.
Was there a maximum legal time limit for trial periods? I advised him that if he wasn't yet convinced he'd made a good hiring decision, but thought the employee might reach the required standard with a bit more time, he could indeed extend the trial period - there was no legal maximum.
In fact, I told him, there was no legal definition in the UK of a trial period (also known as a probationary period) at all, so it was up to him how long to make it.
However, if he still wasn't sure about the employee after 6 months, he should consider cutting his losses.
So what is the purpose of a trial period, and is it worth having one in your contracts of employment? What should the manager do to maximise the benefit? A two-way trial The purpose of a trial period is to give both the new recruit and the employer a chance to determine whether the employee is a good match for the job and the organisation, in terms of performance, capability, conduct and team fit.
However experienced and knowledgeable an individual may be, there is always a settling-in period while the person gets to grips with how things are done in the new company: who does what, where to go for information, how the telephone and computer systems work, what the procedures are for reclaiming expenses or booking a holiday, what the dress code is, and so on.
Those crucial first few weeks can be a steep learning curve for a new recruit, and the manager must do as much as possible to help the process along.
It's a two-way street: the individual is being judged, but they are also judging the organisation.
Some things which will help the new person settle in and start making a contribution quickly, include:
  • Provision of useful information (telephone lists, an organisation chart, a plan of the building etc.
    )
  • The allocation of a "buddy" to whom the new recruit can refer for help
  • A formal induction (a presentation, a one to one meeting, an online process or whatever), and ideally
  • A formal plan comprising training (e.
    g.
    in the IT systems), shadowing more experienced team members, meeting key individuals in other teams and perhaps some key external contacts if applicable.
Just leaving them to get on with it unaided is asking for trouble - new recruits can feel so much like a fish out of water at first that they may question whether they have done the right thing in joining you, and jump ship if another offer comes along.
Without a proper induction plan, the recruitment process has not been successfully completed.
How long? There is no set length for a trial period; it will depend on how senior and complex the position, and therefore how long it should take for a new person to understand what is required.
Generally speaking, for a junior role which the person can be expected to pick up relatively quickly, three months should suffice, whereas for a more senior role six months may be more appropriate.
It is unusual for a trial period to be longer than six months - if you haven't determined by then whether they are going to work out, perhaps you should question your own management skills! Why bother? Some people argue that there is no point in having a trial period, because during the first two years of an employee's tenure the employment can be terminated without much formality anyway, as they lack the right to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.
But I believe this misses the point.
Trial periods are not just a means of giving the employer an easy way to dismiss an employee.
Employees have a number of statutory rights from day one of employment, e.
g.
the right not to suffer illegal discrimination, the right to maternity leave, statutory paid holidays and so forth.
So they should not be regarded as second class citizens who can be dispensed with on a whim, or deprived of all rights.
Nevertheless, by having a trial period in the contract, some non-statutory rights (e.
g.
extended notice periods, enhanced holiday entitlement, contractual sick pay etc.
) may be withheld until they have proved their worth.
You are making it explicit that the person has to earn their place within the organisation, and that you are going to provide training and support to help them do so.
They also serve to remind the employer of the need for regular communication with the new employee about their conduct and performance in the early weeks of their relationship.
The manager's role: providing feedback However long the trial period is, the new employee should not have to wait until the end of it to receive feedback.
You should schedule meetings at regular intervals to discuss your impression of how the person is getting on, answer any questions, and correct any early misapprehensions or inappropriate conduct you may have observed.
For example, in customer facing roles where a particular dress code is required, any departures from what is acceptable should be pointed out early on.
The induction plan mentioned above could usefully involve "learning milestones", laying out what the person is expected to have become familiar with by the end of one month, two months, three months etc.
At the end of the trial period, there must be a meeting between the new employee and the manager, to summarise each party's impressions of the fit between the person and the job.
This is the time either to congratulate the person on their success, or terminate their employment - which may be possible without formality upon giving a minimal amount of notice or pay in lieu of notice, depending on what the contract says - or to extend it if the jury is still out, as in my client's case.
The importance of documentation Whatever the decision, it is important to confirm it in writing so there is no possible doubt as to where the employee stands.
  • If the person has successfully completed their trial, write them a letter advising them of this and mentioning any changes to the contract of employment that may now apply (company sick pay, employee benefits, pay review etc.
    )
  • If the trial period is being extended, write and confirm what the new deadline is, and what the person still has to learn or demonstrate in order for the appointment to be confirmed
  • If the employment is to be terminated, confirm this in writing stating the termination date and whether they will serve their notice or be paid in lieu - and don't forget that the employee may have accrued unused holiday entitlement that must be paid as well.
    A P45 and final pay-slip should be included if they are ready, and the person should be told whether their final pay will be made immediately or at the next payroll run.
The start of the employment relationship - like the start of a romantic relationship - is a time when both sides will be getting to know each other, observing each other, and checking each other out.
Extra effort on both sides will help to ensure things work out well.
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