Dealing with employees on probation

The purpose of putting a new employee on probation is to give the employer an opportunity to evaluate an employee’s capacity and suitability to do a certain job. This includes assessing whether or not the employee fits in with organisation’s culture.

We answer some frequently asked questions about probation here.

Is probation compulsory?

No. It is ordinarily left to the employer’s discretion to decide whether the employee should be put on probation or not.

Is the probationary period prescribed?

No. The employer determines the probationary period, but the period should be determined in advance and should be reasonable in relation to the nature of the job and the time it will take to determine the employee’s suitability for continued employment.

Is a probationary period the same as putting an employee on a fixed term contract?

No, a fixed term contract is for work that is temporary in nature, while a probationary period is a predetermined period to assess the employee’s suitability for continued employment.

If I feel that the employee on probation is not performing as required, can I just tell him to go?

No. Like any other termination of employment, substantive and procedural fairness are prerequisites.

How do I make sure that the termination of a probationary employee’s services for poor work performance is substantively and procedurally fair?

You can do this by:

  • Making clear to the employee that she or he is on probation.
  • Indicating the duration of the probationary period.
  • Indicating the required standard of performance expected of the employee.
  • Monitoring and evaluating the employee’s performance against the set performance standards.
  • Informing the employee of any performance shortcomings identified.
  • Giving the employee an opportunity to state what they think the cause of the non-performance is and what they think should be done to remedy the situation.
  • Giving the employee the necessary assistance, guidance, counselling and/or training required to allow them to render satisfactory service.
  • Giving the employee reasonable time to improve.

What should happen, should the employee still fail to meet the required performance standard?

The employer should:

  • Invite the employee to a meeting and advise them of their right to be represented by a shop steward or fellow employee.
  • Communicate to the employee the aspects in which they failed to meet the required standard of performance.
  • Afford the employee the opportunity to make representations to the employer regarding the reasons for the poor performance, and suggest how the matter could be resolved.
  • Consider the employee’s representations and, if the employer finds them unacceptable, should indicate so and give reasons why the employer does not accept the employee’s representations. The employer may then decide to either terminate the employment relationship or to extend the probationary period.
  • Advis the employee of his or her right to declare a dispute should he or she be dissatisfied with the outcome.

I believe that if I catch a probationary employee stealing from me (misconduct), I can simply fire them on the spot because they are still on probation. Is that correct?

No, that is incorrect. The fact that the employee is on probation does not mean that they forfeit their right to a fair hearing. It is advisable to convene a disciplinary hearing.

Stephen Khola, ECA national labour relations and HR director