Global HR

Setting Employees Up for Success During Probation Reviews

Probation reviews can be anxiety-inducing — both for employees and managers.

For the new hire, joining a new company can often feel like a blur of new faces and new information. Trying to learn the ropes and prove they can perform their core responsibilities by the time the probation review rolls around can feel stressful and overwhelming.

And for managers, it’s their goal to shepherd their new direct report through their onboarding process, and set them up for long-term success. But that’s not always easy when there isn’t a repeatable way of measuring their progress, or feedback norms that help guide new hires to learning the skills needed for their role.

It’s not surprising, then, that roughly 1 in 5 employees fail probation. However, taking a people-first approach to probation reviews won’t only help employees feel less stressed, it can also make the probationary period itself more useful, and more likely to result in employee retention. 

Understanding Probation Reviews  

For European companies, the probationary period is a stage in the onboarding process for new employees, during which the employee and the employer can check to see if they are a good fit for each other. Probation usually lasts three months (although some companies may extend this to six or even nine months, depending on the role).

Legal Guidelines for Probationary Periods

While employees are entitled to their statutory rights from their first day of employment, certain contractual rights may only start once they’ve completed probation. For instance, in some companies, employees only receive sick pay or pension contributions after probation. 

In addition, employees on probation can be fired with less notice than those on a full contract. For US readers, the system is somewhat similar to the concept of “at-will” employment, but restricted to the initial onboarding period only. 

Scheduling Probation Review Meetings

During probation, employers should schedule regular, formal meetings to check in with the employee. At a minimum, managers should have a meeting to kick off the probation, a check-in in the middle of the probationary period, and a meeting to conclude probation and move into full employment. First Practice Management, a compliance consultancy for UK medical practices, recommends more regular probation reviews — for example, on week 4, week 12, and week 26. 

However, remember that probation reviews are not a substitute for regular, real-time feedback. They are a formal opportunity to discuss the employee’s performance and make sure that any performance issues are resolved quickly. Line managers should make sure to combine probation meetings with continuous feedback, and praise and recognition — during probation and beyond. 

What Are the Benefits of Probation Reviews?

While probation, and probationary reviews, can be challenging for new joiners, they also present many benefits for both the employee and the employer.

1. Foster opportunities for learning and growth.   

Probation is an excellent opportunity for line managers and direct reports to uncover specific needs for training, learning, and development in the employees’ areas of improvement. Regular check-ins mean line managers can quickly identify training needs that will help the new employee ramp quickly, as well as proactively help them course-correct while learning new skills or tasks.

2. Create alignment between line managers and employees. 

To work effectively, probation reviews must be a two-way evaluation. Managers can assess whether the new hire is the right fit for the role, but the new team member also gets a chance to evaluate whether the role meets their expectations. During probation review meetings, managers can clearly communicate priorities, and learn more about the new hire, as well as how best to manage and support them. Meanwhile, new hires have the chance to ask questions, share challenges, and check in on their understanding of the role and key goals. 

3. Identify any issues with recruitment and onboarding process. 

If a new hire is struggling, there may be flaws in your recruitment process, or in how you onboard new employees. Probation reviews are a good moment for line managers to flag up issues in the employee experience and relay them to HR, which in time will make the entire employee journey better. 

4. Set new hires up for success and encouraging retention.

Probation reviews aren’t just helpful for identifying performance issues. They provide an early opportunity for two-way feedback, which is one of the most effective ways to decrease employee turnover and improve performance and productivity. 

5. Reduce stress levels for new joiners 

In a fascinating 2021 study by Uppsala University, researchers used blood testing to measure levels of stress hormones during performance evaluations. They discovered that reviews can either contribute to or dramatically reduce job-related stress. It all comes down to the frequency and delivery of the feedback. 

If participants received frequent, clear feedback, their stress levels were reduced–most likely because they knew exactly how they were doing and had no lingering doubts about their job security. 

However, when participants were forced to wait for feedback for weeks or even months, the looming prospect of potential criticism drove stress levels much higher than having no feedback at all.  

In other words, employee feedback is both motivational and reassuring–but only if delivered promptly. Therefore, to get the best out of probations, make sure that you conduct at least one probation review before the end of the probationary period. Otherwise, you may make your new hires more stressed and potentially less effective and motivated at work. 

How to Conduct a Helpful Probation Review 

Running an effective probation review hinges on making sure that line managers and direct reports go in fully prepared, with clear expectations on what the process entails. Putting frameworks that define when and how probation reviews happen means both parties can get the most out of the process. 

Here are some best practice tips and techniques to make sure that your probation reviews are constructive and helpful, rather than stressful: 

1. Don’t wait until the end of the probation period. 

In the Uppsala study, one of the biggest issues turned out to be how long participants had to wait for feedback, not the feedback itself. Over time, participants grew increasingly nervous about how they were coming across at work. 

Instead of waiting until the end of the probationary period to say a final ‘yes’ or ‘no’, schedule at least one mid-point review — try our 30-60-90 day plan template for guidance on how to do this.

2. Communicate a probation review timeline and process. 

“It’s not meant to be a test or a challenge,” explained Daisy Taylor, HR manager of UK-based marketing firm Absolute Digital. “Rather, it should be an opportunity for the employee to come prepared with examples which form a discussion.” 

Before probation even starts, make sure a member of the HR team or the line manager has sat down with the employee and walked them through: 

  • When their probationary reviews will take place and what will be discussed 
  • How they will be evaluated
  • What they should prepare before each meeting (such as notes on their own performance or areas of difficulty)
  • What will happen if a performance issue comes up during probation

Taylor also advised managers to provide employees with an agenda in advance, as well as asking employees before the meeting if there’s anything they’d like to include in the agenda. Here’s a probation review template you can customise. 

3. Identify opportunities for learning and growth. 

During probation, the employee should receive detailed, specific feedback on how well they are meeting the challenges of their new role, and also get a clear understanding of areas they need to work on. 

“Whilst a probation review is intended to understand how an employee is performing and meeting the demands of a role, it’s also an opportunity to identify potential hurdles and where training and support is required to ensure that person fulfils the job to the best of their ability,” Taylor noted. 

Feedback delivered on the fly in one-to-ones can often get lost or forgotten once the meeting is over. Formalising this process using a performance management system can help managers easily integrate the information gathered during one-to-ones with employee development and performance data. This means everyone stays aligned on learning goals, and progress.

A screenshot of the 1:1 view in Lattice Performance Management
Using Lattice Performance Management, employees and their managers can view, update, and reference weekly agendas with ease.

4. Make it collaborative. 

Probation reviews should be a collaborative, two-way process, where both the line manager and the new hire have a chance to reflect on how things are going.

“One of the most important things to remember when conducting a probation review is that it should be an opportunity for growth and learning, not simply a way to judge or punish an employee,” said Claire Randall, HR manager of national plumbing service Heat Pump Source.

Instead of grilling employees on their performance, Randall recommends that managers “focus on asking questions that help employees understand their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.” 

And when it comes to  feedback, managers must make sure to spend time asking for employee feedback as much as doling it out.  Managers can ask questions about the probation period in general, as well as any areas where the company or the manager could create a better onboarding experience. 

Framing these reviews as collaborative, rather than critical, will reduce employee stress and positively impact learning outcomes. 

5. Clearly communicate expectations on responsibilities and goals. 

It’s critical that employees come away from their probation review meetings with a clear understanding of how they are being evaluated, what they are expected to do, and any next steps for self-improvement and learning. This should be something that you work through and discuss with the new hire, but they should also have access to a structured plan they can work their way through during the probationary period. 

“[Probation reviews] should shed light on how things are going, in an open and honest forum, creating actionable targets that are realistic and doable,” said Taylor. “As it forms a conversation, a probation review should frame how your role will shape itself going forward.”

Useful Questions to Ask New Employees During Probation Reviews

Introductory Questions 

Managers should keep the tone of the meeting friendly and approachable. This can include general questions such as: 

  • How are you settling into the role?
  • What are the highlights of the job and company so far? 
  • How well is the job meeting your expectations?

Progress Questions

Taylor also recommends that probation reviews include a progress update, to allow both parties to create a sustainable plan going forward. Here are a few questions to check in with the employee: 

  • Are you satisfied with your progress towards your goals? 
  • What, if anything, is holding you back? 
  • What would make your job more enjoyable? 
  • Do you have the working conditions you need to be as productive as possible? 
  • What goals or objectives would you like to focus on next? 

Values-Fit Questions

The probationary period is your chance to make sure you chose the right person during the recruitment phase. To check in with how well employees are getting on with the rest of the team and their role in general, Randall suggests questions like:  

  • What do you feel is working well in your role so far?
  • What challenges have you encountered, and how have you dealt with them?
  • How are your relationships with colleagues and managers? 
  • Are there any relationships that could be improved upon?

Employee Experience Questions

Probation reviews are a great way to make sure that your recruitment and onboarding experiences are getting your employees off on the right foot. Here are some questions to gather employee feedback: 

  • How is your experience so far lining up with what you read in the job description? 
  • In the past three months (or relevant time), what impression have you gathered about our company, our values, and what’s important here? 
  • Have you received training and mentoring from your colleagues? 
  • Have you had enough support from the Human Resources team? 

Randall also reminded HR leaders and managers that every employee is different, and they’ll have unique needs and expectations for their probation reviews: “It’s important to tailor your questions to each individual, listening carefully for feedback and taking note of any concerns or suggestions they may have.”

In addition to these questions, you’ll need to share your feedback and make sure that employees know exactly how their probation is going and any areas where they need to pay extra attention. 

It’s critical to make sure you’ve given each new hire the best possible chance of success in their role. But if there’s any doubt about whether or not the employee is going to successfully pass their probation, then it’s your responsibility to let them know and work with the employee to define a path forward.

Get More Out of Your Probation Reviews

Probation reviews don’t have to be a “necessary evil”. Instead, they can be a positive experience for both employees and their line managers. Maximising their impact depends on creating a process that regularly communicates expectations, establishes new goals, and fostering a two-way dialogue.

“Probation reviews are an important part of any employee’s development and growth, helping managers to provide constructive feedback and support, while also ensuring that employees feel engaged and valued in their roles,” Randall said. “Whether you’re a manager or an employee undergoing a review, it’s important to approach the process with openness and honesty, to make the most of this valuable opportunity for learning and growth.” 

Are you ready to get more out of your probation reviews? Check out Lattice Performance to see how we can help you make probation a fantastic experience for your new hires and your managers.