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The Candidate: Why It Pays for Both Parties to Treat Probation Periods as Extensions of the Selection Process

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It was watching an American TV show called Chicago Fire that first sparked some thoughts on this topic. The latest recruit into the close-knit fire fighting team on that show is regularly referred to as 'the candidate'; long after he's actually joined the team. This resonates with my own experiences in fast growth SME businesses where probation periods have been treated as just that, a trial period to establish competence, attitude and 'cultural' fit to the company or team. I've also witnessed the opposite in some organisations where passing the final interview and starting in a new role has been treated as full and final confirmation that this is the right person for the job and that they'll be with the company for some time.

I don't advocate employing candidates that you are unsure of, and taking a gamble with peoples's livelihoods and careers. However, it can definitely pay dividends to use the probation period as an extension of the selection process. It benefits both the employer and employee to treat the first three-month's probation as a final interview.

There are some direct HR related benefits for the employer, notice periods are typically shorter and costly benefits such as private health and pension schemes may not have kicked in yet. In addition, the disruption of replacing a poorly judged hiring decision is best faced sooner rather than later.

For the employee, first impressions count and they are hard to change. There is research emerging from the field of Behavioural Economics that supports personal experience that everyone believes they're a good judge of character. The heuristic known as 'Confirmation Bias' means we all look for evidence to substantiate our first impressions far more readily than we look for evidence that suggests we have made a mistake. Common sense should be enough to ensure that every new starter in all sizes and shapes of company will endeavour to make the very best impression. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case and the well-documented rise of 'entitlement' within employees has seen an increase in the number of new joiners who act as though the company owes them a living from day one.

With the current state of the job market this approach is particularly naïve, the only surprise is that many organisations remain reluctant to act decisively. Accepting underperformers as a natural part of any bell curve is damaging and demotivating to the star performers you already have in the business. Why not aim for a team of 'A players' as Oppenheimer and Jobs advocated? Even without the resources of The Manhattan Project or Apple's budget and brand it is perfectly possible, and pretty important, to be highly selective about the talent that you bring into your business. It's vital to avoid on-going investment and development in an underperformer. The typical three-month probation period for most UK employees provides ample time to react and rectify.

To expect any interview and referencing process to achieve 100 per cent success rate is unrealistic. There are plenty of smart ways of increasing your success in this area but even the best HR teams and hiring managers in the world will make the occasional error of judgement. It's not the mistake itself that does the damage; it's a slow or non-existent response that hurts the morale and productivity of others.

So what's this got to do with a Fire Station in Chicago? Fire Departments have individual and unique cultures. The teams operate under extreme mental and physical stress and trust between team members is imperative. Lives are very much on the line. Few of us will have worked in environments that are even remotely as challenging. However, if you accept that these high-pressure and high-performance teams can be analogous to any team within a large corporation, or the entirety of an SME business, it starts to make a little more sense. I've little doubt that the camaraderie, bond of trust and established skill and attitude levels of all within a crack Fire fighting team would be viewed as a welcome improvement or addition to the vast majority of teams or companies in the private sector.

Joining a fire department involves passing both physical and written tests and there's a 35 per cent failure rate at this stage alone. This is followed by a significant training period before a new employee is assigned to a station. They join as 'the Candidate' - they are paid members of the team but they are not yet viewed as 'full' members and nothing is taken for granted. Candidates continue to receive training but they are constantly evaluated for their suitability, for the job itself as well as that team and station. The 'probation period' can last from six months to two years. The name Candidate, Rookie, Boot or Probie can last longer, sometimes until the next newbie joins the squad.

Whilst the stakes may not be so high in the IT, finance or marketing department as they are in a burning building perhaps there are lessons we can learn and adopt.

The interview process should certainly be looked at very closely. Hiring for attitude as well as competency can improve decision-making. A strategy of hiring via referral and recommendation can increase both'fit for job' and 'performance in role' measures. However, this alone is unlikely to achieve perfect results. Treating the contractual probation period as a soft version of a fire fighter's on-going evaluation allows employers to rectify mistakes and miss-fits before they become part of the furniture. It avoids the unproductive overhead of managing underperformers over a long period of time. They may have the skills and the ability but simply not fit into your team and culture, this is best dealt with rapidly if not ruthlessly.
For the employee, it helps focus the mind on the reality that very few jobs are 'safe' or 'stable' anymore. Treating every day as an extension of an interview drives the right mentality and approach and will help them make a great and lasting first impression. This can only benefit their career at the company. Indeed, there's no reason to turn this mind-set off once probation is passed. Many stellar performers I've worked with, interviewed or spoken with treat every day as a new test. It shouldn't take the threat, implied or otherwise, of Damocles' Sword to encourage you to achieve your very best for your pay-check, every day.