Practice management

Probationary periods

Find out what you need to know when trialling new employees

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  • Date: 21 September 2023
  • |
  • 5 minute read

RECRUITMENT in practices is difficult at the moment and bringing someone new into the team can be an unknown and daunting experience.

In order to help reduce any potential concerns, many practices will start a new employee on a probationary period, which gives the employer a chance to assess the new person’s suitability for the role. It also allows the employee to decide if the job is right for them and if they will be happy working in the practice. This is key as an unhappy employee can lack motivation, leading to a knock-on effect on performance, productivity and team dynamics.

The five goals of probation

Generally speaking, a probation period should:

  1. establish clear standards and expectations in terms of performance, conduct, attendance and punctuality
  2. ensure the employee understands the core values and targets
  3. set measurable targets and provide support and guidance
  4. ensure the correct training is given
  5. ensure that the employee is made aware of any concerns and how these can be rectified.

Here are some key points to consider.

Employer’s choice

The first thing to know is that there is no legal requirement to place a new employee on a probationary period and one does not have to be given. But if it is given and included in the contract, then it becomes legally binding. It is important to specify how long the probationary period will last, that it may be extended and that either party may terminate the probation earlier by giving the required notice.

Employee rights

Employees on probation have the same statutory rights as all other employees, such as the national minimum wage, maximum weekly hours, statutory sick pay, family friendly leave and statutory notice. The practice is not obliged to provide employees with non-statutory benefits such as bonuses and enhanced sick pay during the probation period, but this can be offered at their discretion.

How long?

Probationary periods are usually three or six months. The length of a probation period is likely to depend upon the nature of the job and how long it will take the employer to assess performance. A highly skilled role may require a longer probation period that gives the employer more time to determine the employee’s suitability for the role.

Remember to diarise the end date of the probationary period to prevent the employee from “timing out” and completing their probation by default, without sufficient management input.

Regular reviews

It is important to have regular, documented meetings and reviews during the probation period – usually monthly. This makes sure the employee knows which achievements and skills they will be assessed on to determine their suitability, capabilities and development needs. Attendance and general conduct can also be assessed, and any additional training needs discussed.

Offer support

Give the employee guidance where appropriate, along with any positive and negative feedback. Don’t wait until the end of the probationary period to identify or try to address performance or behavioural issues.

If the new employee is underperforming, help them understand where they are falling short - giving specific examples where possible. It may be helpful to put in place a performance plan or arrange additional training to help them achieve the required standards.

Extending probation

If there are still concerns about the employee’s performance towards the end of the initial period, then probation may be extended. Be sure to tell the employee the reasons for the extension, what improvements can be made and any further goals they are expected to achieve before they can be confirmed in the job. Communication is always key in these types of scenarios. The employee must also be informed of the new date their probationary period is now expected to end. Again, there is no legal or set timescales relating to extension periods and the probation could be extended several times.

Unsuccessful probation

If the probation period has not been successful, then a meeting should be set up with the employee to review the situation. If the employee requests it, they have the right to be accompanied at this meeting. There should be no surprises at the meeting as reviews would have been taking place monthly to advise the employee where they are falling short of the required standards. Notice needs to be given to the employee and they can be required to work this or be paid in lieu. Notice needs to be a minimum of a week, unless it is within the first month of employment, in which case no notice is required. A letter should be sent out following the meeting confirming the employee’s termination date and what final payments will be made.

Unfair dismissal

Although an employee needs two years’ service before they can go to a tribunal with a claim of unfair dismissal, there is no minimum service required if the employee feels their dismissal is a result of discrimination. It is important that the issues raised about an employee’s performance or attendance are not linked to a statutory right or a protected characteristic (i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership status, pregnancy/maternity, race, religion/belief, sex and sexual orientation).

Probation periods can be a useful way for both employers and employees to be sure they have made the correct recruitment decisions. However, the practice must always consider the possible legal implications of probation periods and manage them correctly.

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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