by Dr Catherine Armstrong
You are in an exciting position: you have been hired in a permanent position but your new employer says that you have to undergo a probationary period before your job is officially yours. What does this mean, and what is the best way to ensure that you successfully negotiate this challenging part of starting a new job?
What is a probationary period?
Most permanent jobs, whether in academia or in the commercial sector, will involve an official probationary period.
This means that although you have been hired because you were the best candidate for the job, your new employer wishes to keep an eye on you and make sure you are suitable for the position. But more importantly this period is designed to ensure that your colleagues support you and help you to make a smooth transition into working for and with them.
As well as the obligations that your department or team have to fulfil, the probationary period will also be monitored by Human Resources who will offer different contractual terms during this time. This may be in the form of a starting salary that will be raised on completion of the period. It will also usually involve a different length of notice period on both sides, meaning that if you wish to leave the job you have to give less notice than in your period of permanent employment, but equally your employer has to give less notice in order to end your employment.
The length of probationary period differs between institutions and jobs; in some places it can be as short as a few months, in others it can be several years.
What are the advantages for you?
There are advantages for you as part of this process.
It can feel at times as though you and your performance are being scrutinised with no benefit to you at all, but this is not the case. It provides a chance to find out whether the job is right for you: perhaps you will begin the job and really dislike it, or your personal circumstances will change.
The probationary period provides an easier ‘get out clause' than your full time employment would. Also your department or team will offer you extra support to help you fit into the job, so take advantage of all that is on offer. You should be provided with a mentor who will be the first point of contact if you have any issues or uncertainties, and he or she should be available for informal meetings on a regular basis to check your progress.
This is especially important in academic jobs where, to a great extent, permanent lecturers are left to get on with their own work, running courses, designing courses and liaising with students. Your mentor will help you with practical matters and should be responsible for ensuring that you fit into the team successfully. If you have been hired as a university lecturer your teaching load will be lighter during the probationary period so that you become accustomed to a new way of working. This also gives you chance to write new lectures and new courses without being thrown in to a full teaching load.
How to impress your employer in your probationary period?
This is not the same as going for a promotion where you have to try to show that you are doing more than your current role and equally it is not like having an extended job interview. There are some areas that you can impress your employer:
- Do not feel that you constantly have to prove yourself. However there are important indicators that your employers will be reviewing whether you fit the role or not.
- Punctuality is vital, as is attending meetings and taking a full part in the life of your team, department or company.
- If volunteers are sought for particular projects or responsibilities, show that you are willing to take part.
- Make an effort to familiarise yourself with the new way of working and to try to do your job well.
- On a social and personal level take an interest in your colleagues and try to learn how the dynamics of your company work.
Managing relationships with a mentor/line manager
During your probationary period the services of a mentor should be offered to you, so take advantage of his or her knowledge as it will be invaluable in helping you in your new role. Try to develop a good working relationship from the start: informal, but work focussed.
Depending on your mentor you might have to initiate meetings yourself, so be prepared to do this. It is important to set time aside to meet regularly to discuss your progress. For example if your probationary period is one year, try to meet at least once every two months. It's not enough just to grab five minutes by the water cooler every now and then. Make sure you can have a confidential space in which you can privately discuss problems you might be having and ask questions without being overheard.
If you have irreconcilable problems in the relationship with your mentor then approach another colleague who is a senior member of staff with whom you have developed a rapport and ask to be assigned to a different mentor.
What happens at the end of the probationary period?
Your line manager should set a date for an end of probationary year meeting. Hopefully he or she will have contacted Human Resources to notify them that you have satisfactorily completed the period and will tell you that you have been awarded your job permanently. You may move to a different pay increment but this is not always the case, so ask if you are unsure.
Many institutions also use the end of probation meeting to discuss plans for future career development. This could be the first of many personal development meetings that you have regularly with senior colleagues. Hopefully you will be given a chance to summarise your achievements to date and discuss how you hope to build on those. You might be asked to think about your career ambitions in the short and long term and also the ways that your employers can help you achieve those goals. Focus on skills or knowledge that you want to develop, and research the training opportunities that are available. Your employer is showing they have faith in you by offering you a permanent job and they will want to invest in you to encourage you to remain working for them, so take advantage of every opportunity on offer to develop your career.