The ultimate guide to Probationary Periods

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No matter how well someone comes across in an interview, or how vast their experience is, until they start working for you, you have no idea how it will all work out. That’s why most companies offer a probationary period- It gives you time to make sure they’re right for the job and it gives the employee time to make sure it’s right for them too.

What is a probationary period?

While there’s nothing within employment law that requires you to use probationary periods, they are commonly used by businesses as a trial period and during this time certain contractual obligations don’t apply. Namely, the notice period is shorter, which allows you to dismiss the employee more quickly, or the employee to quit and leave with minimal notice. However, after successful completion of the probationary period, employment commences as per your contract.


Since there are no laws around probationary periods, there is no defined length of time. It is reasonable to make the period no longer than six months. The length of the probationary period should depend on the role. The more complex and senior the position, the longer the probationary period. The key factor in deciding on a suitable length of time is how long it may take your new employee to learn the job, take any necessary training, and for you to review this. Usually by three months both you and your employee should have a good idea of how things are working out. While you can opt for a longer probationary period to protect your business, it’s worthwhile remembering the impact this may have on your employee. It can signal a lack of trust and loyalty towards them Use a probationary period that is reassuring to both you and your new hire, and no longer.

Are contractual rights affected?

An employee’s statutory rights are not affected by probationary periods. That means they must be paid National Minimum Wage or more, they are still entitled to paid holiday, rest breaks, and are protected from discrimination, as examples. But when it comes to contractual rights, it’s down to you as the employer whether they differ during the probationary period. Primarily, one right you will likely change is the notice period throughout the probation period. If you find the employee isn’t working out in the role for whatever reason, you may decide that one week’s notice is more suitable than one month. You may also withhold other contractual benefits until successful completion of the probationary period. That could be healthcare, discounts, or any other additional benefit employees receive.

How to help an employee through probation:

  • Give them a clear job description
  • Set short term goals and objectives that can be worked on during the probation period
  • Introduce the business with everything they need to know, including general company
    practises, attendance and repercussions
  • Outline company culture in core values and expectations
  • Plan the right training
  • Discuss reviews and performance feedback

Review the progress:

As well as regular weekly or monthly 121 meetings, you should offer on-the-spot guidance and feedback day-to-day. This needs to be specific, constructive, and should offer solutions rather than simply highlighting problems. Encouraging this type of communication to be two- way is helpful as it will also help to give you insight into your new hire’s experience. For 1-2-1 meetings, gather feedback from those who work directly with your new employee, and listen to any concerns colleagues or direct managers may have. During the meeting, go through their progress, explain which things are going well, and be open about areas of improvement. If there are performance issues, be honest and create a plan for improvement.
If your requirements are being met with ease, add something more challenging to see how they cope. If they’re struggling, make reasonable adjustments so that goals become more obtainable. Always give your employee an opportunity to respond to your feedback. There may be a legitimate reason that they’re not meeting your expectations and the sooner you’re aware, the easier the issue is to resolve. Keep records of all performance reviews, including any agreed actions. You may also consider a follow up email after the meeting so that your employee has a clear understanding of their next actions.

What to do at the end of the probationary period?

Once the probationary period is over (including any extensions), you will need to confirm the outcome with your employee, in writing. If they pass, it means all contractual benefits come into effect, and they’ll be given a new notice period. If they fail and you’ve given them a fair opportunity to improve, you’ll need to set out the next steps. There may be another role in the business they would be more suited to, or they may be dismissed.
In some cases, a probationary period may be failed due to poor behaviour or conduct. Here it is appropriate to follow your disciplinary process, discussing it in your reviews. If the behaviour is classed as gross misconduct, your policy should cover dismissal. It’s important to follow your standard fair dismissal if you reach this stage.
When probation has failed, you can move on to your dismissal procedure. You will need to invite the employee to a meeting to review probation, and state that dismissal is a possible outcome. Set out the reasons why they’ve not successfully completed their probationary period and allow them the opportunity to present their case. Finally, provide a letter confirming the dismissal and offer an opportunity to appeal.

  • While an employee with less than two years’ service doesn’t have unfair dismissal rights,
    they can still claim ‘automatic unfair grounds’. If you don’t follow your dismissal
    procedure this will be automatically unfair, according to the law. We therefore suggest
    you include in your disciplinary policy or contract the following statement:

During the probationary period, the full disciplinary and grievance procedure will
not apply.

For more information or help with probationary periods or any other HR issue 

Harwood HR – HR Consultants providing HR Consultancy and
HR Outsourced Services.  We provide clear, cost effective HR advice. For a
free consultation, please contact us on:

0117 439 0119 or info@harwood-hr.co.uk

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