What you need to know about probation periods

You don’t have to have served any hard time to be on probation. In fact, at one time or another, this word applies to us all. We investigate why…

What is a probation period?

It is, essentially, a safety net for employers after the recruitment stage is complete. The probation period is a mutually agreed upon duration of time (typically anywhere between one and six months) in which your ability to meet certain performance levels – in other words, the potential you exhibited in your interview – will be observed and assessed. Pending a review, the subsequent failure to meet these standards within that period can lead to an employer dismissing an employee without fear of unfair dismissal claims and employment tribunals.

What you need to know about probation periods

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So if I fail my probation I can be dismissed without any chance to fight it?

Barring certain exceptions, yes. In order to claim unfair dismissal in terms of performance you must have worked for a certain period of time (one year if you started work before 6 April 2012, two if you started on or after it). It is only then that you’re entitled to your main unfair dismissal rights.

What if I feel I’ve been unfairly dismissed under different criteria?

Probation doesn’t mean that employers can simply do what they want! Rest assured, as an employee, you do have certain inalienable rights. And one of them is the right not to be dismissed (or in Lord Sugarian language: “FIRED!”) on grounds that could be deemed discrimination revolving around matters like age, sexual orientation or religious belief. In some cases, for example whistleblowing, dismissal is automatically unfair even without any qualifying period. In these and other situations, you’re perfectly entitled to make a claim.

Am I only fully employed once I pass probation?

It’s a frequent misunderstanding, so let’s set the record straight: your official employment – replete with all its contractual rights – begins on your first day, not after probation is over! Likewise, even if you fail probation, you are still entitled to work (or receive) your notice period, as well as any outstanding pro-rata holiday pay.

What you need to know about probation periods

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How should I prepare for my probation review?

Remind yourself of the criteria that will be used to assess you. Typically, once a candidate is first hired, the job offer/contract of employment will include a set of professional expectations that are put into writing. Re-familiarise yourself with what they were and then think of practical (and irrefutable!) examples of how and when you met them. Better yet, pass probation in style and show how you exceeded them!

Can my probation period be extended?

Yes. It is possible – if it is stipulated in your contract/agreement – for a probation period to be extended if your employer feels they need more time to assess your long-term ability to meet the required standards. Again: this highlights the importance of both reading and understanding what you’re agreeing to when you accept a job. Probation is a big thing that likes to assume the form of small print.

What if I get promoted and then fail that probation period?

Circumstance dictates here. It all depends on how long you’ve been employed. If you’ve worked for two years or more, you will be in a much better position to launch a claim for unfair dismissal. What’s crucial, then, is that you agree – before accepting the promotion – that adequate training and time to adjust will be provided and that any consequences of failing probation are clearly understood (i.e. the potential for outright dismissal as opposed to, say, a demotion).

What you need to know about probation periods

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What should I say at an interview if I failed my probation at my last job?

Honesty is the best policy. And that first requires you to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself: why didn’t I pass? If you didn’t fully apply yourself – why was that? Perhaps the job didn’t engage you like you thought it would? Remember: employers and employees can both make mistakes when it comes to recruitment. Use this as a unique chance to clarify who you are in the interview stage. The ability of an employee to identify their own strengths and weaknesses is a very popular interview question (and, indeed, desirable skill). Such honesty about your probation may not only be appreciated, it may actually help you stand out.

Can probation ever be a good thing for the employee, too?

Yes. Probation periods work both ways. For one, both employer and employee have the right to break free from the employment agreement within this allotted time – as such, it can offer unhappy employees an escape without having to comply to a lengthy notice period. Similarly, probation is typically a time in which lots of invaluable support and tuition is given so that the candidate can meet their career objectives. For the inexperienced or recently graduated, then, probation can be a brilliant chance to add to their skillset. Treat probation as an opportunity to grow, not a reason to be terrified.

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