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Does the pandemic signal the death of the probation period?

First in last out, right? It’s the simple reason why so many employees are currently reluctant to make the move to a new job – understandable in such an uncertain economic environment.

Too many horror stories abound of colleagues who have moved to a new company, only to have had their job removed in the very first days of their new post. It’s all anecdotal evidence of a job market that is slow moving in many markets around the world. It is also one of the biggest challenges for employers on the hunt for the best talent. 

But to quote Bob Dylan: “Times, they are a changing.”

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The pandemic is testing one of the most widely accepted terms of contractual employment. A probation period is, of course, the period of time at the start of an employment when an employee may be dismissed with little or no notice if they’re found to be unsuitable for the role.

It has been very normal to include probation periods – typically three months in length, but also as long as six months – within any new employment contract. But what this means is that the new employee has no job security at all in those early days. 

Probation periods have been generally seen as important for both parties. They help employers to be sure they’ve made the right decision in hiring someone, allowing them to take action more quickly if they feel a new starter isn’t suitable for the job.

For the employer, this reduces the expense of continuing to employ joiners who aren’t a good fit and enables them to be replaced more swiftly. And for employees, they can swiftly leave a company if they feel the post is a mismatch for what they want for their own careers, or if there are personality clashes, or the job simply wasn’t what was promised. 

But it also leaves the employee exposed and vulnerable. In some markets we are seeing a small but increasing number of employees successfully negotiate with their new employers to completely abolish their probationary period. For employees, this has been enough for them to ‘jump ship’ and for employers it has enabled them to attract the best talent to their firm. 

The world of work is changing – and at breakneck speed. Global companies like HSBC, Mondelez and Barclays have all announced intentions to reduce the amount of city centre office space they need. 

Our own research shows that 60% of employees would not consider a job that provided less flexibility than they have today. So, it’s clear where and how we work is undergoing the biggest transformation since the industrial revolution. However, it’s not just how we work, but how we take ownership of our own careers that is also being revolutionised. 

Employees are feeling emboldened and starting to make demands that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The message for employers from a new breed of confident and empowered employees is simple: if you want me, I want you to completely commit to my employment from the very start. 

So as the pandemic continues, and new ways of working, recruiting and staffing become established, things that were viewed as ‘normal’ and accepted without question are being looked at very closely. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that this, at least currently, is an employee’s market. 

If employers want to seek out the best talent, then be warned: employees are getting more power to call the shots – and firmly in the firing line is the probationary period.  

Marcus Beaver is UKI country leader at Alight Solutions