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Top tips for effective probationary periods during lockdown - news article image

Top tips for effective probationary periods during lockdown

15 Jan 2021

6 minute read

Probationary periods give both the new employee and the employer an opportunity to assess whether the employee is suitable for the position. They are designed to help the employee make a smooth transition into the role and team they were appointed into and it helps the individual understand the wider demographic of the organisation.

Despite some sectors of the job market coming to a virtual halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, others are thriving. This means that thankfully the recruitment of new hires is still taking place via virtual processes. I am pleased to say that at Shaw Gibbs, we have successfully hired and inducted 13 members of staff since March 2020 and are actively recruiting for more.

The interview and offer process are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of ensuring the best fit, retention and ongoing success of new hires. From my experience, it is the induction process that is critical in the initial throes of employment and this process is all the more important when inducting and managing employees remotely.

A new employee is a big investment in monetary and time costs and therefore it is in all parties’ best interests to make the hiring decision a success.

Here are my top tips for effective probationary periods during lockdown. 

1. Regular meetings 

It is good practice for managers to have regular formal probationary review meetings with each new employee during their probation. The meetings should be about reviewing performance and development and set forthcoming objectives.

Pre-COVID, I recommended these formal meetings should take place once a month but during lockdown, I recommend more regularly, say once every two weeks. For the best results, these should be carried out by video call, not over the phone.

In addition, you should hold regular informal ‘catch-up’ meetings with your new team member, at least on a weekly basis (again by video call) in order to help them to overcome the remote working barriers. If your company is holding online socials, encourage your new employee to attend these to get to know their colleagues as much as possible.

The final probationary review meeting should take place on the last day of their probationary period. If the employer fails to conduct the final meeting before the end of the probationary period, the employee may have deemed to have successfully passed their probationary period by default. Remember to write to the employee to confirm they have passed their probationary period. 

2. Provide feedback 

Managers should use probationary meetings as an opportunity to provide constructive feedback about where they are exceling and the areas they need to improve.

Regular feedback will help to ensure that the employee does not become entrenched in doing something badly and is clear about what is expected of him or her.

The feedback should be clear and precise. Managers should provide specific examples of areas where the employee has performed well and where they may need to develop their performance or correct their conduct, avoiding generalisations. Although you may seek input from other team members or colleagues in the wider organisation, try to avoid the ‘he said/she said’ approach and use open questions when providing third party feedback.

 3. Explore problems 

Managers should use review meetings to explore any issues that have cropped up, discussing these with the employee. It should be a two-way meeting where the manager and employee analyse problems together, including the reasons behind the issues, and come up with a plan of action to address them. 

4. Set the right tone 

It is important for managers to set the right tone during a probationary review meeting. Getting carried away and assuming a disciplinary stance can be off-putting for the employee. The emphasis should be on supporting the employee.

The manager should be tolerant as a new employee cannot be expected to get everything right straight away. They will, in many cases, need to learn new processes and systems before he or she can get up to speed with the job. This can be more difficult to achieve in a lockdown environment where team members are not as accessible as an in-office situation.

The manager should discuss these fully and openly with the employee and deliver any criticism in a constructive way. It is best to use positive words, such as “improvement”, rather than negative words associated with failure. 

5. Encourage an open dialogue 

A probationary period is more likely to be successful if the employee has been given plenty of opportunity to raise issues and ask questions about the working environment. 

Often, the employee may be nervous about asking for help, particularly if it is about something they have already been taught. 

Therefore, during each meeting, the manager should make clear that the meeting is a two-way dialogue to raise issues and for them to work together to find ways to ensure that the employee will be happy and successful in the role. Ask open questions and listen actively to what the employee has to say. 

6. Create a record 

It is best practice to use a Probationary Review Form at every probationary review meeting. This form can be used to record objectives and track performance. 

After each probationary review meeting, the manager could send the employee an email confirming the key points discussed at the meeting and attach the updated Probationary Review Form.

This record will serve as a reminder for both parties at the next review meeting of the issues that needed to be addressed. It can also help to propel them into action following the meeting, to work on the points they have agreed. 

A record will also provide evidence that the organisation raised under-performance or conduct issues with the employee should the need arise to discipline, performance manage or dismiss them at a later stage.

7. Take action to dismiss employee or extend the probation before the probationary period expires 

There are three possible outcomes to a final probationary review meeting: 

1. They pass and become a permanent member of staff; 

2. They aren’t suited to the role/it isn’t working out and you dismiss them; or 

3. You extend their probationary review period to give them additional time to get to the level required. 

Depending on how your business is operating during these challenging times, it may be necessary to extend probationary periods as it could be harder to ascertain the performance of an employee when working remotely. 

A probationary period is purely contractual rather than a legal entitlement so you will need to check internal policies and the contract of employment. Normally there will be provision to extend probation and how this should be communicated.

It is crucial to emphasise that this is not a negative decision if this is driven by the limitations of lockdown.

If you decide that unfortunately the employee has not reached the level of performance required in the role, you can dismiss them. They will be entitled to notice or a payment in lieu of notice, as stated in their employment contract.

Top tips for effective probationary periods during lockdown - news article image


Kerry Whitfield

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