Evaluating the Probationary Employee

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Hello. Gordon Graham here again. Today we are continuing with some thoughts on getting and keeping good people in your public safety agency.

In my last two articles, I covered recruitment and background investigations. Now, I want to tackle the subject of probation.

But first, let me channel my inner Carnac the Magnificent. (If you are under age 40, you will have to look that up!) Here is my prognostication: Within the last month, you have heard these words in your public safety building:

“How the heck did he/she ever get off probation?”

This question usually follows some close call or actual tragedy, like a traffic collision, damaged government property, an embarrassing post on social media, inappropriate use of force, a lawsuit or a criminal filing against a member of your organization.

How do people get off probation? Someone in your organization lets them off probation! And too often, the person you let off probation ends up causing your organization major problems.

Before we go any further, let’s agree on a definition. Probation is the final and most important phase of the selection process and is to be used for evaluating the performance of an employee in the position to which he/she was appointed.

"Probation is the final and most important phase of the selection process and is to be used for evaluating the performance of an employee in the position to which he/she was appointed."

Before we go any further, let’s agree on a definition. Probation is the final and most important phase of the selection process and is to be used for evaluating the performance of an employee in the position to which he/she was appointed.

So let’s go back to the start of a public safety employee’s career. You have completed all the requisite steps in pre-hiring, and the applicant has been offered a job. The initial training—often at an academy, but sometimes not—is part of the probationary process. The training program that follows the academy is also part of the probationary process. And there is an additional period of time after this training where the supervisor and management team can observe the progress of the probationary employee to make sure he/she has the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to properly perform the work. This, too, is part of the probationary process.

Each of these steps is an opportunity to fully evaluate the probationary employee. If they are not progressing appropriately, or if they doing something that violates law or policy, it may be time to “reject” that person from probation.

Please recognize that once the probationary employee gets off probation, it is much more difficult to separate the employee from the organization. If a rejected probationary employee chooses to challenge their separation formally, they have the burden of proof to show that they could do the job. However, once the employee is off probation, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to show that the employee cannot properly do the job. It is much more difficult to fire employees than it is to reject them while on probation.

Unfortunately some people slip through the cracks, get off probation and then cause problems. What can we do to stop this? First, make sure that everyone on your supervisory and management team understands that probation is part of the hiring process—and if they have probationary employees who can’t or won’t do the job, they must get rid of them.

Wait a minute. Carnac the Magnificent will make another prognostication. Have you heard these words in your building: “But we will be shorthanded if we get rid of him/her!” My response: “I would rather be shorthanded forever than to have this fool working in our organization.”

Here is another common quote: “But we have a lot of money invested in this person already!” Cut your losses early on, boss—it will not get cheaper over time.

And another common quote these days: “But we can’t get rid of him/her because he/she is a member of a protected class, and we need to increase the diversity of our workforce.” Please never think that you have to lower standards to increase diversity. There are a whole bunch of people of every race and sex and sexual orientation who would make excellent public safety personnel. To lower standards to increase diversity is an insult to every other member of that particular protected class.

So back to the problem: Right now, some probationers are slipping through the cracks because no one in the organization is personally responsible for a given probationary employee.

So here is a “control measure” for you to consider: Assign a senior leader to be personally responsible for each probationary employee. “Mary, John—you are one of my respected leaders in this organization. I am asking you to verify that [insert name] has the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to do this complex job prior to their being released from probation.”

This direct assignment of responsibility works, because when the probationary employee ends up causing a lot of problems, we know exactly who to look to and where to take the appropriate action.

So keep these things in mind in respect to probation. I look forward to visiting with you again in my next article, which will focus on the importance of solid performance evaluations. Until then, please take the time to work safely—and make sure those “sluggos” aren’t slipping through the probationary cracks.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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