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Probation Periods

There's been quite a bit of talk about hiring the right people in recent threads, and making sure you only accept smart people who get things done.

Most companies also, at the start of employment, give a "probation period", usually of a few months, to see whether or not you can actually do the job and fit in. If you fail this probation, you're out.

However, in my experience, I've never seen anyone actually fail a probation period, even morons who produce code I have to end up rewriting or redesigning. So what are they for? Are they just some "feel good factor" for new employees?

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Thursday, May 29, 2003

This lack of geiing rid of them if they're no good might be to do with the amount of effort required by management.

In most medium to large companies (at least in the UK) it takes a huge amount of effort and paperwork to get rid of someone, even if they are useless.

Even though its clearly wrong, I think it happens and the manager just hopes they can "promote" the person in question out of their team.

Steve Jones (UK)
Thursday, May 29, 2003

That's bizarre.

I can see why it's effort to fire somebody who's established in the company - if you're firing them now why did you hire them in the first place?

I can't see how that translates through to probation. It ought to be relatively straightforward to state on a contract that by accepting the offer you indicate that you understand you will be kicked out if you fail probation. Or does the law get in the way of that too?

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Thursday, May 29, 2003

Related to the "only hiring smart people" thread, we'll be having a probationary period, and we'll definitely be watching very closely to see how someone fits in. You need to be able to correct hiring mistakes.

It costs a lot of money to bring someone on and train them, which is why most companies never get rid of someone after they hire them. Too much inertia. But on a small team, even a single negative impact person can have devastating effects. It has to be watched very, very closely.

Brad Wilson (
Thursday, May 29, 2003

In South African labour law (considered to be of the most employee-friendly in the world) companies must give an employee 3 written warnings for the same offence before they may be fired. The only exception is during the 3 month probation period when you first start work with a company - they can fire you at any point (kind of a "everyone walks away unhurt" clause). As far as I know, this works two ways, in that the employee can leave with like a day's notice during that period, whereas thereafter they are required to work out a calendar month's notice.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

I've noticed this too - companies with 90 day probation period tends to fire people after the 90 days.  I saw one terrible employee who was fired around day 100 or so, never before that.

I've heard anecdotal evidence that other companies work this way.  There is probably some psycological reason, but, offhand, I can't think of any ...

Matt H.
Thursday, May 29, 2003

I have to agree with "better"  I have yet to see these work.  While IANAL, I believe they give the impression you could be, but legal issues probably keep anyone from really being exposed.

A better option, and one I strongly recommend to clients is "rent to own."  Bring on the person as a contractor for six months.  At the end of the six months roll them or let them go.  The important part is to let them go.  Too often they bring them on for six months and the person is still a contractor two years later.

Mike Gamerland
Thursday, May 29, 2003

The effort involved in firing somebody during probation is not the paperwork for the labor authorities, which in general doesn't exist, but for your own company. You have to persuade your superiors the person is no good and that you need to start the hiring process all over again. You don't make yourself popular if you do this too often, and you are also calling into account your judgement if, as is usually the case, you were involved in hiring the person in the first place.

So its only in small owner-managed companies that probation is an effective tool. And of course your future employees are likely to be aware of the fact, plus the fact that fitting in with a particular cult/culture is more a factor in those companies. So when you get somebody who has a good job somewhere else you are either going to have to waive the probationary period to get him, or increase the salary and benefits to compensate for the risk.

Another factor to be born in mind, is that the probationary period is only accepted by employees because people are so rarely fired. If your company gets the reputation of using it you will find that nobody with a job elsewhere will transfer to your company, and those desperate ones who do will spend part of those three months looking for other jobs as a safety net, and might even decide to jump ship anyway as a precautionary measure.

Stephen Jones
Thursday, May 29, 2003

One of the reason people aren't let go during their probation period is that it can make the manager that hired the person look bad.

If you're a manager and you have to fire someone (esp. someone you just hored) for not being able to do their job, what does it say about your ability to find/hire talented people? There are a lot of managers who'd just put up with the person sothey wouldn't have to admit the mistake.

There is also the 'buy in' of the manager. The manager was convinced the person could do the job, it will take a bit to convince him otherwise. Since the first 90 days tends to be relatively unproductive anyways (HR matters, mandatory training, learning the project,...) it isn't enough time to weed out the people that are marginal.

I like the idea of a 6-month contract before hire (I've known firms that did 1 year contracts), but there are people who don't - mainly due to benefit/pay issues.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

RocketJeff -

>(esp. someone you just hored)

I realize you meant 'hired', but my mind 'enhanced' this to (w)hored, and it left the statement just as true, but funny.

Maybe I'm just too cynical...

Wolf Bogacz
Thursday, May 29, 2003

Better Than Being Unemployed...,

I think the probation period could work. I have seen it work too. It might be just chance you never seen anyone part with their company that way. Too bad.

Li-fan Chen
Thursday, May 29, 2003

Considering the amount of work that goes into a typical interview process, I'm surprised that a probationary period is considered necessary (even if staff are rarely let via this route). This also goes for taking on a contractor for X months too, then buying them after that period, which is in essence the same deal from a non-legal perspective.

I'm thinking of Peopleware, this site, and personal experience: Does it say something about a company if they cannot put full faith in their interview process?

Any thoughts on this?

Joel Goodwin
Thursday, May 29, 2003

From personal experience...

We interviewed somebody, and said "no-hire". However, we desparately needed somebody to write the installer, and nobody would do it, so we took him on on a temporary contract for three months (which should have been plenty of time to design, implement and test it), after which we were planning to let him go. (I should emphasise I wasn't involved in the hiring process because I was on another project).

After three months, the installer wasn't anywhere near finished, so they took him on as a permanent employee, as he was now on the critical path.

Six months later, he complained he wasn't getting enough challenging work, and demanded to code some C++. We got a graduate to work on the installer and stuck him on some C++ in my project. He left soon after.

The installer had to be completely rewritten, and the C++ module had some fairly major bugs in as well. (He also used wstring when the rest of the team used LPTSTR and BSTR, but I don't think I can actually fault him for that...)

The moral of this story : He wasn't cutting the mustard after three months, so why would he have changed?

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Thursday, May 29, 2003

2 yrs ago, I hired a kid who was recently out of college.

From the very start he often showed up late (11AM) and had a bad attitude. This behavior continued even after I spoke to him.

I decided to let him go rather than put up with the headaches. A month later, I got a call from the unemployment office. Turns out he claimed he was "laid off" and wanted to collect benefits.

Speed forward 1 year. I'm working at a major US corp, and my group had a job opening for a manager. We needed someone with intimate knowledge of our business, so we decided to hire someone in another group who was recently "given notice." Big mistake.

This person decided that she didn't like working for our group (we were "too technology focused"), and she quit to focus on something that made her happier. 4 months later, we get a call from her lawyer. She sued us for her unemployment benefits, even though she quit!

The case went through arbitration: she claimed that she was a victim of a bad job -- she couldn't sleep, had headaches, etc. In the end, the arbitration panel awarded her the benefits and our company, painted as the giant evil corp, had to pay up.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

"If you're a manager and you have to fire someone (esp. someone you just hired) for not being able to do their job, what does it say about your ability to find/hire talented people?"

So, you think it's better to compound one mistake with another one of a much larger magnitude? Nobody is perfect. People are bound to make some mistakes, but owning up to them is a far more mature and valuable asset than trying to cover your own ass and costing the company a lot MORE money.

In my mind, it's almost impossible to know even with a full day interview whether someone is going to fit into your culture. It's only reasonable to get some time into the relationship to see if it's a good fit. I've been there and done that as an employee, and it would surprise me if others hadn't as well (none of those companies are on my resume now).

There are factors that add up to a bad fit that just can't easily be discovered in an interview, in my experience.

Brad Wilson (
Thursday, May 29, 2003

Probationary periods are there precisely to get away from the fact that it is difficult to fire someone. I know people who have failed probationary periods (unfairly in some cases) I know people who have had their probationary period extended (i.e. still under probation).

Essentially it is the responsibility of the employee to prove they are capable of the job during this period. The problem is that for our line of work it is difficult to ascertain that, even after 6 months - new employees are typically only warming up at that stage. Often they don't have the institutional knowledge even by then or networked effectively with other team members.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Even if the hiring process is robust, you can still wind up with a dud.  Several years ago the company I was with acquired another company, whose engineers didn't want to transfer across the country.  Plus we were experiencing a small boom in sales in our other core areas, so we had to hire a bunch of engineers in a short period an undesirable but unavoidable situation.

Our candidate screening and interviewing processes were pretty good, but we still ended up with some that didn't cut it.  A precondition of the employment was that they be able to come up to speed fast.  Some didn't so we let them go before the end of the probation period.

The key thing is that the manager must be diligent about monitoring performance.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

IMHO, "bring them on as a contractor for six months" is a very, very bad move, provided you do it properly.

Someone who's brought on as a contractor needs to be incorporated and carry liability insurance. They also need to provide for their healthcare and dental insurance. Generally, you pay them more per hour in recognition of these expenses and because they cost less (the "cost" of an employee is generally 1.2 - 1.5 times their pay)

The thing is that the cost of insurance to the contractor is going to be much less than that .2-.5 of their pay. So at the end of that six months, you're going to have to convince that contractor why they have to take a 20-30% pay cut to keep working for you doing the same work.


Mind you, there *can* be benefits that make it worthwhile. In addition to the health care coverage, you've got life insurance, stock options, laptop purchase plans, etc, etc, etc. Only problem there is that companies have been shedding a lot of employee perqs as "unnecessary expenses"

Double Oops.


Thursday, May 29, 2003

"Someone who's brought on as a contractor needs to be incorporated and carry liability insurance."

The places that do a contract-as-probation usually does this through a prefered consulting firm (i.e. a body shop), not as an independent 1099 contractor.

The consulting firm treats the person just like any other contractor - they hire them as a W-2 employee for the length of the contract. Once the contract is over, the person is treated just like any other consulting rolling off a contract - they're let go.

Yes, there is the issue of health insurance, etc. There are a lot of firms that have waiting periods for these benefits for regular employees (i.e. no health insurance for a month), this is just a bit longer...

Also, if the person knows up front what is going on, there shouldn't be an 'oops' after the probation is done. If the person decides that they really do like being a contractor, they walk away; if the company decides the person doesn't fit, it walks away; if they both agree on being an employee the terms should already have been set. No 'oops' involved.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Good points.
I don't understand the waiting period on health insurance, never have. I think it's abusive to ask an employee (esp. one with a family) to go without healthcare coverage for *any* length of time. Every employer I've worked for has offered coverage from day one, so it's doable. Mind you, I don't have a problem with preexisting condition clauses (don't like them, but understand them) - that's different.

Out of curiosity, what do you do if after six months you find the guy is amazing, you make the offer, and he decides to continue contracting? Do you refuse to continue his contract? Assuming you've priced the contract appropriately it shouldn't be a cost issue.


Thursday, May 29, 2003

Philo describes the biggest problem with rent to own.  The good ones may want more.  If you really cannot reach a resolution, where they are hired, and your objective is to put a full-time employee into the position, they have to go.  If not, you are going to fail the IRS 20 factor, and they are  going to be making contractor wages AND be considered employees.

As for incorporated and insured, that is not required in the US. While many companies will require it, the law does not. Instead, I can add a rider to my current business policy to assume the risk.  It does not add significant expense because I incur the same risk with both employee and contractor. YMMV.

OTOH-- I agree with you and RocketJeff on the insurance thing.  I insure my company through the local Chamber of Commerce.  I ordered my insurance and it began the same week.  Seems like a Fortune 500 company should have less of a problem than I did. 

Mike Gamerland
Thursday, May 29, 2003

Just a quick and slightly off topic bitch ... somebody new at work and still on probation has been docked a few days' pay this month because he took three days off sick recently.

What? Is that legal?

I've told him to find out who decided to cut his paypacket and talk to them, but he can't be bothered.

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Friday, May 30, 2003

Better:  I'd assume a company policy that a person on probation doesn't accrue sick leave.  So, if they take time off for sick leave, their pay must be docked.

Is this not the case?

Brent P. Newhall
Friday, May 30, 2003

Don't know. I guess it must be. It's just something I hadn't heard of before.

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Friday, May 30, 2003

IANAL-- but a guy at work just went to one on a similar case.

Tell him to check with one.  For $150 he can a yes/no.  My understanding is that if you are salaried and you pay gets "adjusted" for any reason,, by hour, day, week or month, then you are now an "hourly" employee. 

This entitles you to overtime and a whole lot of other good things.  [the guy at work is looking at 5 years of overtime doubled + legal fees.]


Friday, May 30, 2003

Laws vary from area to area.

Where I live, failing to show up for work can get you docked, even as a salaried employee. The salary is based on reasonable expectation of performance (e.g., 40 hours per week). If you have no accrued time off, but need it off, then you didn't work and shouldn't be paid. In fact, there's no reason that the company couldn't fire you for failing to show up, so I think it's a benefit to the employee that the company was willing to let them take an unpaid day off instead of forcing them to come in or be fired.

Brad Wilson (
Friday, May 30, 2003

Laws vary from state to state, but Federal law still trumps the state laws.  An employer who insists on X number of hours per day, and docks pay runs the risk of having the employee classified as non-exempt and being required to pay 150% for overtime, including back pay for all overtime worked since beginning employment.  Exempt workers are supposed to be evaluated on work done, not hours spent.

The issue is not whether they have the right to dock salaries for absences; the question is whether they can do so and still maintain the employees in Exempt status (i.e. no overtime pay).

Having said that, sufficiently large periods of absence can justify salary deductions. Less than a day is not enough, but I believe docking for complete days of absence may be allowable without jeopardizing exempt status. And I am more confident about a full week's absence.  Of course, IANAL, so check your local laws and lawyers.

Friday, May 30, 2003

Just a quick reminder (I know, preaching to the choir):
The origin of "exempt" employees were executives that were expected to mind their own hours. Their employment was performance-driven, so how they chose to work their tasking was up to them.
When the Federal Gov't was working on the FLSA, which says in effect "employees shall be paid for every hour worked" (who would ever think that needed to be a federal law?), business lobbied for an exemption for executives and professionals, saying in effect "neither we nor they want to have to keep timecards." Since most men who were execs or professionals worked 2500 hours/year anyway, nobody really cared when they took an early Friday afternoon to play golf.

As with anything else, the system has been corrupted. Now "exempt" is used to keep from paying as many employees as possible overtime, yet these employees are expected to use a finite bank of "personal time" when they take an hour to go to the bank.

IMHO, the Dept. of Labor should get off their backsides and start enforcing the FLSA as it was intended - anyone who has to take "vacation" for less than a full days' absence should be automatically nonexempt and eligible for overtime.

(One nice piece of fallout from the dotcom era - many companies now *do* pay overtime)


Friday, May 30, 2003

I've seen people fail probation periods. A good case was one where the guy just wasnt up to scratch but was given the chance to improve. He didnt, and thus was shown the door.

Another was  a pathetic case of politics gone mad. The new guy was fired cos schedules werent being met and it was a small team.

Not Telling
Friday, May 30, 2003

Where the FLSA is concerned, corporate bigwigs have taken advantage of programmers' refusal to join together for any common cause.  They got the FLSA to specifically mention computer professionals as exempt employees.

T. Norman
Saturday, May 31, 2003

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