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How do probationary periods work?

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

In the UK contracts of employment are normally subject to probationary periods. Probationary periods should be outlined within contracts of employment and some organisations might also have a probationary period policy outlining how they will treat, and support, employees during their probationary period.

What is a probationary period?

A probationary period broadly speaking is a trial period for newly appointed individuals. It's essentially a try-before-you-buy period where both parties have a get-out clause and can decide to terminate the contract normally with a shorter period of notice than when someone is confirmed in post. Probationary periods allow both parties, the employee and the employer, time to decide whether or not the appointment is right for them.

How long should probationary periods be?

The answer to this question is, it depends. Broadly speaking the more senior the role the longer the probationary period will be. So for a Director or Senior Manager, you could expect a probationary period of around 3-6 months, for a more junior role a probationary period could be anything from 1 month upwards. Essentially organisations need to find a balance between what works for them in terms of being able to test out an employee and also having probationary periods that aren't so long that they put potential employees off working for them.

Can you extend probationary periods?

Yes, employers can choose to extend an employee's probationary period. This is normally only done where there is a performance concern and someone needs some support to get to the level of performance that the business needs. We'd always recommend that employers make this clear within their contracts of employment and, pro tip, make sure you outline that the notice period stipulated within someone's probationary period extends along with any probationary extension. Any extensions in probationary periods should also be outlined to the individual in writing.

What happens when someone isn't performing during a probationary period?

Ideally, depending on the circumstances, we'd suggest trying to support someone when things go wrong but also, as above, you'll have the option to extend the probationary period. Worst case scenario either party could decide to part ways and would just need to ensure they do this in a fair way and in accordance with either their probationary policy or ACAS guidance on dismissals which you can find here;

What happens if someone wants to leave during their notice period?

This is handled in the normal way that contracts are terminated. If someone wants to leave during their probationary period, they should inform their organisation of this in writing and make sure that they give the relevant period of notice as outlined within their contract of employment. As with any other termination, the organisation should make any payments due to the individual such as accrued but untaken holiday pay and any other amounts that are due, this is normally covered within the final pay packet.

How much notice do employees have to give during their probationary period?

This depends on what is stipulated in the employment contract. Technically once someone hits 1 month of service they are entitled to a minimum of 1 week's notice. So it's important that employment contracts reflect this.

At the time of writing this article, October 2022, according to ACAS the below applies in terms of statutory notice periods in the UK;

If an employee has worked for:

  • 1 month to 2 years – statutory notice is 1 week

  • 2 to 12 years – statutory notice is 1 week for each full year they have worked

  • 12 years or more – statutory notice is 12 weeks

Employers may choose to provide more notice for employees which will should be stipulated within the individual's contract of employment.

Acas provides more guidance on notice periods which you can see here;

How can Tap HR Help?

We can support businesses by writing contracts that have clear and robust probationary period clauses, writing probationary policies if businesses would like to have them and managing situations where probationary periods need to be extended or where an employee has failed their probationary period.

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  • All information within this post is provided for guidance only, always seek your own legal advice

  • The information with this post was correct at the time of publishing, October 2022 but may be subject to change

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