Probation: An Underutilised Tool For Achieving High Performance

Performance management is key to achieving employee effectiveness and efficiency, but are organisations using probation as a tool to achieve high performance? Deborah Blackman, Fiona Buick, Samantha Johnson, and Michael O’Donnell of UNSW Canberra's Public Service Research Group believe that employers should use probation to help define high performance and encourage desired employee behaviour. 

This blog post is a summary of the presentation made at the 20th International Research Society on Public Management Conference 2016 in Hong Kong

What does an organization need to be high performing?  Research indicates that high performance work practices (HPWP) make high performing organizations[1] these include job design, recruitment and selection, training and development, performance management, rewards and high involvement work practices.  But we suggest that, although not commonly listed, one of the most influential HPWPs could be probation. Commonly seen as a negative condition of recruitment, we argue that probation is a missed opportunity to establish and maintain high performance.

What is Probation? 

Probation is a defined period of time of 6 or 12 months when a new employee and their supervisor begin working together for the first time. It’s a time when expectations are set and good behaviors are modelled.

During the probation period, the new employee’s capabilities, skills, work performance and general conduct are assessed and problems with performance or behavior are identified and addressed.  Traditionally the probation period is seen as a time for supervisors to ‘catch’ poor performance or bad behavior, and for new employees to lie low and simply ‘get through it’.  It can be a negative, even fearful, time when employee and supervisor focus on achieving minimum performance standards.

However, probation can be much more positive; a period when expectations are set and employees are supported to meet those expectations. Rather than ‘catching’ a new employee when they fail, a new employee would be given clear descriptions of what is expected of them and the opportunity to see high performance and appropriate behaviors modelled around them.  After all, if a new employee does not know what high performance looks like how can they achieve it?

How is Probation Currently Used?

The probation period is for both sides to say ‘This is working’ or ‘It’s not working’ and to very early on [identify performance problems]... I mean, [six months is] a really long probation period. That’s plenty of time to identify if there’s a problem, work on the problem and either, be part-way, at least, to resolving it... And you can also extend that six month period. I mean, there’s provision within there to extend it, if you’re not sure how things are going.”
— Senior Manager, Operational Agency

The research suggested that probation is not recognized as a time to build high performance. Rather it’s seen as a time to rigorously assess performance. At times, the role and goals required of a new employee are made clear, but not always.  This is despite new employees seeking clear strategic direction and priorities and clear vision, goals and objectives, all of which support high performance.

Most people believed that probation was used to avoid long term poor performance. They saw the process as complicated and time consuming and requiring a set of skills from supervisors that many simply did not have.  The research therefore showed that the ineffective implementation of the probation process was attributed to both process and managerial capability issues.  In other words, probation is poorly used because it’s seen as complicated and difficult. 

How Can Probation Build High Performance?

We suggest that probation needs to be reconsidered. Instead of being seen as a complicated process designed to catch poor performance, it could be a positive time when new employees are given clear goals, a clear role and the opportunity to observe and model high performance.

Managers come to me say, ‘We’ve got this person that’s on probation, they’re not going so well’, and I say, ‘Sack them. Don’t blink an eye … if you’ve done everything you should have done, then go, sack them’. but two months, three months later they’ve walked in and they’ve said, ‘You know that person you told us to sack’, and I said, ‘Well you didn’t did you’, ‘No. So now we’re here to performance manage them.’
— Middle Manager, Large Operational Agency

Further, probation, as a tool for building high performance, should occur at multiple points in a career; not simply at the point of initial recruitment, but in the first few months of any new role or assignment.  During this time, supervisors would explain what high performance looks like, actively set high expectations and offer support and encouragement to achieve this.

Critically, for probation to achieve high performance, supervisors must be confident and skilled in being positive role models and giving feedback; moreover, they should see it as core part of their role. For probation to be an influential HPWP, organizations need to see it as an opportunity to explain, model and reward high performance and integrate it into other HPWPs such as learning and development and ongoing performance management.

[1] For details of the study see Blackman, D., Buick, F., O'Donnell, M., O'Flynn, J. & West, D. 2013. Strengthening the performance framework: towards a high performance APS. Australian Public Service Commission,; and Buick, F., Blackman, D.A., O'Donnell, M.E., O'Flynn, J.L & West, D. 2015. Can enhanced performance management support public sector change? Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28 (2): 271 – 289.