How to sail through the probationary period

The probationary period for a new employee, typically 90 days, can often be tense and fraught with misunderstanding.  Some experts claim that as many as 1 in 5 don’t make it through their probationary period; a definite and significant lose-lose scenario.  It’s an issue that, in some cases, can be addressed by companies adopting better on-boarding practices.  But is there anything that a new employee can do to avoid pitfalls and get through this tricky and critical job stage?

At Capital Assignments, our executive search service extends to the provision of coaching to both the new appointee and the line manager during the probationary period to support both parties in finding their way with each other.  In our experience, this is a two-way street, and there are effective ways for the new employee to influence their success.

Keeping a positive attitude – Some new appointees are consumed with the idea that they are ‘on trial’ during the probationary period which makes them tense and jumpy.  In this state of anxiety, they cannot present the best of themselves and they lose perspective of what’s at stake during this time.  Yes, you are ‘on trial’, but there is a context for this, and you are actually not alone.  It is in the interests of both parties for the probationary period to be a success.  It is true that you need the job, the salary and the career progression.  But the company also has high stakes invested in your success.  The cost of recruiting you was significant to your new company, as this includes all the costs associated with not having a person in the position you came along to fill.  If you fail, uncomfortable questions will invariably arise as to the effectiveness of their organisational processes.  If you fail, they will incur more significant costs.  Therefore, you could re-frame the idea that you are alone ‘on trial’.  If you can see yourself and your new company as being in the same boat, you might better be able to relax more, present a positive ‘can-do’ attitude, roll up your sleeves and help yourself and them to make this time successful.

Committing to professionalism – It may come as surprise to those who imagine that an incumbent would naturally be vigilant about their professionalism in an ‘on-trial’ circumstance, but many managers report the tardiness and absenteeism of their new employee during the probationary period as the reasons for ending the relationship.  You cannot possibly make a favourable impression if you don’t turn up, and on time.  Of course, there can be unavoidable circumstances that result in lateness and taking sick days during the probationary period.  If this happens, you need to make very sure that those affected really understand the dilemma you faced and that they are convinced that you would have wanted this to be different.

In the same vein, presenting a wholly different physical impression during your probationary period versus your interview stage is not a good idea.  Yes, it is possible that your new company may well accommodate your dress code quirks, but probably only after you have well-established your value. The probationary period is too soon to be experimental and to push conventional professional boundaries.

Maintaining balance – It can feel like walking a tightrope.  You want to make good impressions, even stand out, which can lead you to over-promising.  You also need information and support, which can lead you to seeming painfully needy.  Veering between independent bravado and pitiful dependency can often crash you.  With a cool head, you need to balance what you have to offer with what you need to succeed during this time.  Yes, taking on extra tasks can demonstrate your commitment to make this new relationship work.  But if extras mean you can’t deliver on the usual tasks and responsibilities you signed up for, then you are going to surely sink the boat.  The same applies to trying to fast-track relationships in your new work-place.  You can maintain balance by being competent, approachable and friendly.  Take an interest in your colleagues and work at developing constructive relationships with them.  However, keep in mind that the time it takes to achieve mutual trust, support and empathy with new colleagues will quite naturally exceed the 90 days of a probationary period.  Keep your focus on the goal; don’t rush and don’t push.

Communicating what you need – It is a great temptation to do the best you can, keep your head down, deliver as much as possible and not hassle your new manager with the ‘demands’ for what you need to know.  This is a mistake.  However relieved your new manager may seem to have a new incumbent who hits the ground running and strives to work independently, do not agree to any abandonment or deviation from your new company’s on-boarding programme.   Of course, it is possible that you can find your feet in 90 days without the structured programme, regular mentoring and feedback sessions.  Possible but not likely, is simply not a great a gamble.  Even if your manager expresses relief at not keeping to the on-boarding programme after a week or two, cover all your bases by regularly assessing your needs, evaluating your progress on the defined goals of your probationary period and insisting on the sessions you need.  The bottom-line is that when you need the help you are entitled to and it doesn’t look like you will get it, you must not hesitate to ask for it.

The most important thing to remember is that this probationary period is not the time ‘to hope for the best’.  You are not powerless in making this work out to your advantage, which is also to the advantage of your new employer.  You are in this together.  Be collaborative, honest, direct and confident about playing your part in sailing through your probation.

If you feel you need the support of the hiring professional who helped connect you to this position, then reach out to them.  Any recruitment agency of substance and value will have what it takes to help steer this boat on course for the benefit of both you and your new employer.  You are not alone!