UK: PROBATION ON TRIAL. - The running-in period seems to be running out of supporters.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The running-in period seems to be running out of supporters.

Has time run out for the probationary period? New recruits are traditionally told that they will be on trial for the first month or more before their employment is confirmed. The time allows for references to be checked and for the employer to ensure that the worker is up to the job. But what useful purpose does this running-in period serve? Indeed does it have any legal validity?

'There's no point to it at all,' says Chris Brewster, professor of European human resource management at Cranfield School of Management. The fact is that, right across Europe, employers are moving to short-term contracts with fewer permanent jobs on offer. Firms now have stacked the cards in their favour. 'It's no longer the case that, once employed, you have to be bloody awful to lose your job. With the advent of short-term contracts, you have to prove you are marvellous before you are asked to stay.' Even where probationary periods still apply, they are badly managed, argues Brewster. 'What generally happens is that employees are taken on, go through the probationary period without any on-going assessment, and become employed by default when their manager forgets that the probation has come to an end.'

Ian Hunter, assistant director of the London region of ACAS, is equally adamant. Existing employment legislation renders the probationary period redundant, he says. Companies are more than adequately protected against poor employment decisions because employees cannot claim unfair dismissal until they have been continuously employed for two years (except in a few specific instances such as dismissal on grounds of race or sex).

'In effect, everyone is on a probationary period of two years, since during that time you can be dismissed and have no comeback through an industrial tribunal.'

Nevertheless, probationary periods do have some legal implications which should not be ignored, says The Industrial Society's employment law expert Olga Aikin. 'If a manager forgets the end date, the employee is thereafter confirmed in the contact,' she says.

ACAS also draws attention to the importance of the wording.

'If a person is employed on six months' probation but the employer wants to be rid of them after two weeks, then the wording could be crucial in determining whether the employee has any claim for compensation,' says a spokesman. 'If it were felt that the contract amounted to a guarantee of employment throughout the probationary period, then a claim for breach of contract might succeed.'

Certainly a majority of organisations continue to use probationary periods.

The Boots Company always takes on all staff subject to a three-month probationary period. 'It's a two-way thing,' says Boots spokesman. 'It allows individuals to assess whether they are happy with us, and vice versa. Often references and medical reports have not come through when we offer someone a job and it allows a little extra time for that. More importantly, it means we can assess performance and arrange for training which may be necessary.' All recruits to Essex Police are on a two-year probationary period, says the force's personnel officer Ian Watson. 'We think of it as an extended on-the-job training period. We use it to try and identify problems with performance, so that we can bring people up to scratch.'

Stefan Stern of the Industrial Society believes that few organisations employ probationary periods in so positive a way. 'They should be viewed as part of the very important induction process. More often they are seen merely as an opt-out safety net when something goes wrong. If recruitment and selection are well thought out and followed by a proper induction process, then what purpose does the probationary period serve?'

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