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Fit or Not? How to Make the Most of Probationary Periods

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Clear expectations and on-going communication are keys to evaluating new recruits.

A recent study by Leadership IQ found that 46% of new hires don’t work out within the first 18 months on the job. Most of these employees leave because of cultural or interpersonal mismatches, rather than a lack of technical expertise. With these low rates of success, getting your new hires off to a strong start is important. One approach is using the probationary period well.

First, a definition: probationary periods are trial periods at the beginning of someone’s employment that usually last between 3 to 6 months (though some can be shorter or longer). They give both the employer and employee time to build their relationship and evaluate fit.

If either party becomes dissatisfied during the probationary period, employment can be terminated with shorter notice than usual. In Kenya, new employees hired on a probationary period should be given a probation contract or an employment contract that includes the terms of a probation period. According to Kenyan labour law, an initial probation should not be longer than six months, though it can be extended up to a total of twelve months with the consent of the employee.

Whether you’re the hiring manager or the new employee, we believe the key to making the most of the probationary period is clear, on-going communication. This begins on day one with sharing expectations of one another. What is the supervisor looking for in terms of performance, milestones, teamwork, and attitude? What does the employee want with regards to responsibilities, accountability, support, and culture? It’s also important for the supervisor to explain how the new hire will be assessed during the probationary period.

In addition, new employees have a much higher chance of succeeding if they are provided proper orientation and training. Research by Glassdoor found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%. Supervisors should ensure that direct reports understand their responsibilities and the mission of the organisation, are introduced to key team members, and are given necessary technical instruction. While this can require a significant upfront investment in time and resources, it’s far less than what it would take to replace an employee.

Throughout the probationary period, we recommend regular assessment meetings, with the manager setting the agenda and documenting the discussions. Each meeting can be used to review what’s working and what’s not. Another benefit is that the more you interact, the better you can evaluate cultural fit. If you are consistently clashing, or feedback isn’t being heard, or you keep talking past each other, that can be a red flag as you look at longer-term employment. Remember that, more often than not, interpersonal or cultural issues are what lead to someone leaving a job.

As the probationary period nears its end, new recruits should be notified of their status as soon as possible. Even if you are happy with their performance, we recommend erring on the side of more communication. Telling new employees what they have done well will boost their confidence and enhance future performance.

In our experience, many organizations think they have a great onboarding program, but most of it is focused on processes and paperwork, or applied inconsistently and only for the first week or two. Making the most of probationary periods requires effort by all parties involved: the HR department, the supervisor, and the new hire. We believe this is energy well spent, allowing you to give new employees the best chance to succeed and, over time, to build a stronger team.