Dokimasiphobia: Fear and the Probation Period

Wind back the clock …

Day 1 in the new job.  We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely be there again.  One of the things I learned from my “Outplacement Consultancy” (part the new terminology I learned when I was made redundant) was just how normal redundancy is in the modern world.  Redundancy isn’t a black mark on your career any more.  It’s so often just a reflex action, showing financial prudence to shareholders.

So, yes, Day 1 in the new job.  One of the clauses in your contract will be a probation period, from just a few weeks up to a few months.  You need to pass it, else you’re out.  And you can be kicked out on typically 1 week’s notice (in the UK – elsewhere YMMV).  Doesn’t that make you feel afraid?

Why do companies have a probation period?  Well, IMHO it’s because of the high cost of making a bad hire.  In my first weeks in the new role I was tasked with making more hires into a team I might not be managing if my own probation didn’t work out.  So the probation period was there as my get-out – in theory – in case I made a bad decision in my hiring.  So I could afford to be a little lax, surely, and hire anyone who looked like they could mostly do the job.  Right?

Wrong!

Back in the Cold War, there was the intriguing concept of MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction.  These days it sounds more like a finance house, but the reality was about keeping balance in nuclear war.  You knew, and your enemy knew, that if either of you launched a nuclear strike, the other would be able to retaliate with sufficient force, so that there would be no winners.

As a hiring manager, you should never rely on the probation period to get you out of trouble.  On probation myself, for me to use a probation fail to get rid of a bad hire would be a good indication to my own boss that maybe he’d made a bad hire.

I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time, however.  I just knew that my standards had to be as high as ever in the hires I made.  I sat in on one interview made using the old hiring process, and I knew I had my first task – to set up a new hiring process.  I had to take the issue of coding skills off the table and concentrate on bring in pre-tested candidates with a good chance of a mutual “wow”.  But that’s another story.  Suffice to say, I created a new hiring process and made three hires using it (all of whom have their own probation goals).  No hiding from personal responsibility.

So several paragraphs back, I concluded with the question “Doesn’t that make you feel afraid?”.  How do you master the fear in that situation?  Most of the fear is probably around being unemployed again, and not having money, and all the things that start to go wrong when you don’t have money coming in.

There are two things that people do when they are afraid.  One is to hide, to hunker down and hope the threat bypasses you – i.e. hope that the boss loses interest in you.  The other is to address the fear head on.  Look at the fear, look what’s causing it.  That fear arises because the probation period is something outside your control.  After all, the boss can, pretty much on a whim, sack you, can’t they?

Possibly so, but your boss really doesn’t want to look like an idiot who can’t be trusted to make a good hire.  Even by Day 1, they’ve made a huge investment in you as a new hire.  Investment of their time, their critical faculties and so their reputation.

Equally, as a new hire, you’ve made a big investment.  Maybe you’ve left a job voluntarily, sacrificing all the possibilities of that career.  In any case, you’ve invested your hopes in this one company on the basis of – most likely – a day or less of investigation (web searches, the interview), in a process that you did not wholly control.  You’ve sacrificed the possibilities of all those other opportunities you were juggling when the offer came.  You don’t want to look a fool for having chosen a lemon, do you?

So there could be a mutual incentive to rush through the probation period, with the new hire laying low, just trying not to make any big mistakes, and the boss not looking too hard, in case they find evidence of their own bad judgement.

That way lies MADness and unhappiness.

Address the fear head on.  Take control of the probation period.  Ask (or tell) the boss what success looks like.  Discuss it.  Turn it into a set of probation goals.  Write them down.  Each of you should have a copy.  Give one to HR, too – they like a nice, fat employee file.  Having agreement on probation deliverables is way, way more important than having a contract in your hands.

Now you know what success looks like, you can direct your efforts to making it happen.  And your boss is relieved, because they now have a list of actions to perform (typically the provision of training and assignment of graded, learning-oriented tasks) that helps them make it a success.

More important, you and the boss can now concentrate on the real set of issues.  In the interview process there should have been at least a hint of a ‘wow’ – arising from a well-designed interview process in which hopefully both parties get some idea of what it would be like for this person to work for this company.  (If you’re the boss reading this, and your interview process doesn’t do that, it’s broken and you need to fix it.  Now.)

For the new hire, the real set of issues is:

  • Does the job meet or exceed what I learned about it in the interview process?
  • Are the people as great to work with, day in, day out, as they were in the interview?
  • Can I trust my management line?  Can I trust my colleagues?  Do they deliver on their promises (e.g. the promised training, those graded, learning-oriented tasks)?
  • Does the new hire ever think wistfully about any of the other employers they applied to?

For the boss, the issues mirror those of the new hire:

  • Do the skills, aptitudes and ambitions of the new hire meet or exceed what was shown in the interview process?
  • Is the new hire a good fit now they’re actually part of the team?
  • Does the new hire deliver what was promised (assuming the boss keeps their side of the bargain, delivering the promised training, etc)?
  • Does the boss ever think wistfully about some of the other candidates they could have chosen instead?

And just to be clear, minor frustrations are not grounds for either party to bail out, or to extend the probation period.  If the job were frustration-free, it probably means it’s so trivial as to be meaningless.  When the frustrations happen, use them to test the trust you’re each building up in the other.

For both parties, the focus is mostly not on whether the new hire can do the job, but rather on whether the employee/employer relationship is a trust-based one that both parties are enthusiastic about.

In short, is the ‘wow’ still there?

Yes, Boss, I’m talking to you.  And yes, Employee, I’m talking to you.

The probation period is a tool for each of you.  Don’t fear it.  Own it.  Use it.

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