Keeping new talent engaged: Preparing employees in the probationary period and beyond

business collaboration, teams working together

Article by Seth Kramer, Head of EMEA at Lattice

The Great Resignation is impacting businesses around the world, and the UK is no exception.

New data released by the Office for National Statistics shows that resignations and job-to-job moves in the UK are at the highest level in 20 years, with 40% of employees surveyed in the United States, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and the United Kingdom say they’re “somewhat likely” to quit in the next three to six months. 

New hires are an especially vulnerable cohort in this latest wave of resignations? Research has shown that 91% of new employees are willing to quit a new job in the first month if it isn’t what they expected, with 93% saying they are willing to leave within the first 90 days, or in their probationary period.

The importance of first impressions is nothing new, but as the war for talent rages on and employees are increasingly empowered to leave behind employers who aren’t meeting their expectations, it’s critical that HR leaders, managers, and new hires alike consider probationary periods carefully and take steps to set employees up for success from day one.

Kick off the probationary period with well-defined expectations 

So you’ve found a great candidate for a key open role and made them an offer to join your organisation on a probationary period. In an ideal world, the probationary period is beneficial to both employers and new hires. The company has the opportunity to assess the skills and overall fit of the new recruit, while the employee gets time to find their feet in their new role and decide if it’s right for them long-term. 

In the UK, there are no specific regulations to determine how long the probationary period should last; employers should consider a variety of factors, including the recruit’s level of experience, the complexity of the role, and the particular onboarding requirements of your organisation. Generally, probationary periods last anywhere from three to six months, followed by a probation review.

It’s a general best practice at the start of the employment to establish clear expectations with the new employee. The new recruit’s line manager or a member of the HR team should discuss the following:

  • The core values and mission of the organisation, and how employees are expected to behave as company representatives
  • A clear outline for what they will be expected to achieve during the probationary period
  • Standards of communication, both internally and with external customers, agencies, and vendors as appropriate
  • An overview of any specific training or learning & development requirements to succeed in their new role
  • A timeline for and all relevant details pertaining to their probation review 
  • The process for addressing any performance issues or challenges 

This is a lot of ground to cover, so at the end of this preparation stage, make sure you are checking in frequently with the new hire to make sure all processes are clear, the expectations for their role are understood, and any follow-up questions they have are answered.

Keep new hires informed and on track with regular check-ins 

It’s important to check in regularly with new hires, and the probationary period is no exception. You should aim to set up a series of formal review meetings with the new recruit; the cadence will depend on the length of the probationary period, but it is ideal to schedule reviews at 1 month, 3 months, and 6 months. 

Each of these meetings should follow a structured outline and call back to the expectations established at the start of the probationary period. Essentially, they should serve as pulse checks, so the new hire is able to clearly understand how they are performing, where they are exceeding expectations, and where there might be room for growth. 

Of course, outside of these formal reviews, ensure that the new hire’s line manager and team are empowered to offer regular, real-time feedback as well. And if the employee is struggling in any area of their performance, it’s important to step in quickly and offer immediate support — don’t wait for the formal meeting. The goal should be to give the employee every opportunity to develop and succeed in their new role. 

Feedback in the probationary period and beyond

Feedback is a vital part of employee success and engagement at any stage, but in the first few months of employment, it can truly make or break an employee’s onboarding experience — and determine whether a new hire will continue to grow with your organisation or begin to look elsewhere. 

Whether within a formal review or more casual check-ins, keep the below in mind when offering feedback and direction to a new employee:

  • Always take time to recognize and reinforce the employee’s strengths, and areas where they are performing well.
  • Be open and honest around areas for improvement, and use specific examples and documentation where possible to avoid confusion. 
  • Remember to leave space in any feedback conversation for the employee to respond and share their own perspective — there may be other factors at play that you aren’t aware of. 
  • Wherever possible, find common ground on the cause or nature of any challenges or obstacles the employee is facing, and offer tangible support on how those challenges could be better managed. For example, perhaps they require more training, or a mentor or teammate’s support on a specific project. 

If there are performance challenges, it’s critically important to ensure employees understand the level of improvement and progress required from them within the probationary period so that they know where they stand heading into their final review.

Ending the probationary period on the right note

The final review should be a time for reflection on the full scope of the employee’s probationary period, an opportunity to take stock of their performance, their accomplishments, and any obstacles or challenges they faced during their first few months. 

If you have done the legwork throughout the process, nothing raised in this review should come as a complete surprise to the employee, but make sure to allow adequate time on both sides to document and prepare for it.

Throughout the session, make sure to follow the below guidelines to ensure a clear and productive conversation:

  • At the start of the conversation, set clear expectations on what ground you will cover, and assure your employee that the review is meant to be a two-way conversation. They should feel comfortable to offer a response or ask a question at any point; encourage an open dialogue at the start, and reiterate your openness to their feedback throughout the discussion. 
  • Prepare documentation around the employee’s performance in advance of the review, and refer to it throughout to ensure you are hitting all the necessary points.
  • Be specific and provide examples as much as possible.
  • Tone and delivery are important here; as much as you can, communicate in an honest and direct manner, and avoid sounding overly critical or accusatory when addressing challenges.
  • When discussing any challenges or obstacles, take the time to discuss and agree on solutions. You may also need to clarify procedures and emphasise what is expected of the employee.
  • Agree on an action plan moving forward.

Assuming the probationary period has gone well on both sides, objective setting with regards to their next steps should be a collaborative activity. Finding a happy balance between what works best for them and is also in line with organisational goals will help create achievable and necessary goals that your new, official employee can get behind.