The Opportunities and Risks of Employment Probationary Periods

The Opportunities and Risks of Employment Probationary Periods

As economic instability and high unemployment continue to shape job seeking and hiring practices, probationary periods -- short-term periods employers use to try out job candidates before rewarding them with full-time status and associated benefits -- are becoming increasingly common.

Job seekers willing to accept probationary employment are often recent graduates, career changers or those trying to get into a particular company. They typically view probation as better than nothing given the current labor market.

For employers, the introductory period can protect them from poor hiring choices or committing to a full-time hire in a sagging economy. “This practice buys employers time so they can see if they really want to invest in someone,” says Kelley Rexroad, principal of Krex Consulting, a human resources consulting firm in Odessa, Florida. She notes that “in most cases, the situation is good for employers and bad for the rest of us.”

If you’re thinking about accepting a probationary work contract, here’s what you need to know before signing on.

Get a Company to Try You Out

Jobs with probationary periods are often listed as “potential to become full-time.” The length of the work contract can vary, but most trials are usually between 75 and 100 days. These trials are distinct from more traditional probationary periods, which apply to full-time hires and often last only 30 days.

Interviews for these jobs are no different from those for full-time jobs. The goal is still to convince the interviewer you’re a good fit.

“It’s all about a positive attitude,” says Olivia Fox Cabane, a coach at Spitfire Communications, a career consulting firm in New York City. “Even if inside you’re worried about the fact that you could be out of a job at the end of the probationary period, it’s important to approach the interview by thinking about the quality of the opportunity and all the potential upside.”

Success During Probation

Once you’ve nabbed a tryout, it’s important to maintain this positive approach and demonstrate to the employer that you’re ready to do whatever it takes to keep the job.

Conveying this commitment might mean paying close attention to detail, taking thoughtful notes, listening carefully, accepting grueling travel schedules or performing tasks you wouldn’t normally do, such as filing.

For Michelle, a PR professional who asked to be identified only by her first name, it meant longer hours. After she was hired on a probationary basis (an offer she accepted because she really wanted to work for this particular firm), she felt obligated to come in an hour earlier, stay an hour later and frequently eat lunch at her desk.

“Nobody held anything over my head, but I think it was understood that I had to prove that I was worth keeping during those three months,” says Michelle, who was hired full-time after her probation was up.

The Down Side

Clearly, introductory periods can be rough on those who agree to them.

First is the issue of compensation. Some companies pay less during the trial period and don’t offer benefits. Others pay probationary workers the full-time rate, and then let them go after reclassifying them as temporary workers, leaving them ineligible for severance, COBRA or unemployment.

Second is the issue of longevity. Accepting an employment probationary period could be risky when you could get terminated when your contract is up. For this reason, some job seekers leave probationary employment that doesn’t become full-time off their resumes.

Doug Roberts, an educational technology consultant, had an experience that serves as a cautionary tale about probationary employment. In early 2009, Roberts accepted a probationary job with an educational technology company, knowing the potential pitfalls full well. He figured the probationary aspect of the job would be just a formality. However, at the end of his 90-day probationary period, his manager extended his probation another 90 days and then retroactively gave him a poor review for the first 90 days. Ultimately, Roberts quit and left to start his own consulting business.

“When I first joined, I read and signed all the HR paperwork, but I discarded the probationary contract as something that’s required on the books for more junior employees,” he says. “I never imagined that it would actually play a role in my work there.”

Probationary Advice

The bottom line? Don’t necessarily rule out probationary employment, but be aware of the potential risks. Some tips:

  • If you’re hired on a probationary basis, ask how you will be evaluated and what happens when your probation ends. Find out if others have worked -- or are working -- on probation and what happened to them when their time was up.
  • Discuss pay up front. Understand if you will be paid less than the full-time rate and whether you will get benefits. If not, budget accordingly. If the job doesn’t include health insurance, buy your own.
  • Know your rights. Most probationary workers have very few. Consult the IRS distinctions between full-time and contract workers for more on this subject.