Is Extending the Probationary Period a Good Idea?

It shouldn’t take that long to identify poor performers.

We’ve seen many proposals over the years to extend the probationary period for new federal employees from one year to two. Most recently, a bill was proposed that would make newly hired Defense Department employees serve a two-year probationary period.

The House-Senate conferees involved in developing this bill said that they “expect the secretary of Defense to ensure that supervisors optimize the additional probationary time by educating supervisors on the importance of tracking when an individual’s probationary period is ending and directing the supervisor to make an affirmative decision or otherwise take appropriate action.”

They further stated that “The secretary should take steps to ensure DOD supervisors are aware of the range of tools and guidance available through the Office of Personnel Management, including online and in-person training and guidebooks.”

There is nothing wrong with this proposal. It does provide government managers with additional flexibility when dealing with new employees who are problems. The real issue, however, is why would it take managers more than a year to identify these individuals and take appropriate action?

In my experience, new employees who are or are going to be problems identify themselves very quickly, because they give out a series of warning signs. They may frequently come  to work late or are often absent, pay little attention during training, constantly ask questions because they don’t do their homework, display a poor attitude, or — you get the picture.

The point is that everyone gets to know who the problem employees are very quickly because they usually reveal themselves. The employees certainly know who they are, the people who train them know who they are and management does too.

The problem is not really the length of the probationary period (although longer is better.) The problem is management’s inability and/or unwillingness to do anything about it. That is the real reason managers do not terminate enough probationers — because they choose not to, which is why lengthening the probationary period will help but won’t ultimately solve the problem.

The House-Senate conferees also noted “that the probationary period extension will be beneficial only if an agency has effective performance management practices in place and uses the extra time for the purpose intended.” To me, that is the key point. Ultimately, you can’t really legislate accountability — it needs to be built it into an organization’s culture and management practices.

Here are steps that every agency should take when bringing on new employees. If done well, they should result in poor employees being removed no later than the end of their first year of probation, if not sooner, which should be the goal.

Hire the right person in the first place. This means conducting a widespread search, properly rating and ranking candidates, taking your time to conduct effective interviews, checking the best qualified candidates’ references, etc.

Establish an effective onboarding program, which ensures new employees get off to a good start. That includes having a positive orientation session, perhaps assigning a mentor to help them navigate through the organization, providing a realistic set of expectations that include performance standards, and giving them an individual development plan.

Supervisors should provide probationers with honest feedback at least every 30 days. This will ensure that 1) problems are identified early, 2) action is taken to correct them if possible, and 3) the probationer will see a potential negative action coming early on. Such sessions should be documented.

Higher-level managers and human resource management officials should walk around the workplace to get a sense of what is going on.  Such an approach will provide a valuable reality check and  reveal whether there are poor probationary employees first-line supervisors are not dealing with.

If managers do a good job of hiring, onboarding, tracking, assessing and providing feedback to probationary employees, they should not need a two-year probationary period. That said, history tells us there may still be occasions in which poor employees slip through the cracks. For this reason, I am in favor.

Stewart Liff is a fellow with the Performance Institute, specializing in human resources management, visual performance management and team development. He is the author of multiple books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. 

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