New employees are often subject to probationary periods during which their suitability for employment is evaluated. These are defined periods of time (which are often for three months but can be longer) that are established at the beginning of employment. This period often provides an employer the ability to terminate the employee without cause and without the normal obligations of providing notice or severance. The employee is usually not entitled to benefits such as health insurance, bonuses or options at this time.
One purpose of probationary periods is to give the employer a reasonable opportunity to determine if the employee is qualified and suitable for the job. Most new employees show potential during the interview, however the subsequent failure to meet the expected standards within the probationary period can entitle an employer to dismiss the employee without fear of unfair dismissal claims
A probationary period also serves as a time for training and acculturation of the employee. Probation is typically a time in which lots of invaluable support and tuition is given so that the employee can meet their career objectives, especially if they are not very experienced. It is always advisable that the parties expressly define the performance standards expected of the employee in writing. This reduces the chances of confusion or conflict arising from misunderstanding.
This period also enables the employer understand whether the employee can adapt to the organisational culture. For instance, an otherwise stellar performer in a laid back culture may find performance difficult in a high pressure environment.
The Labour Act is silent on the issue of Probationary periods. However, Section 3 of the Act gives employers a 3 month grace period before requiring them to give their employees a written statement of the terms of their employment. From this, it can be implied that the lawmakers understood the need for an employer to evaluate the performance capacity of his employee before formalising the relationship.
This however does not mean that the employer can do whatever he wants! Employees have certain inalienable rights; and one of them is the right not to be dismissed on grounds that could be deemed discrimination. This means he cannot be dismissed for reasons revolving around matters like age, sexual orientation or religious belief. In some cases, dismissing an employee for whistleblowing will entitle the employee to sue for damages arising from unfair dismissal.
Instead of perceiving the probationary period as a testing and evaluation period, it is better for the employee to view this period as a time for personal growth and development. The employee should endeavor to develop their existing skill sets and effectively leverage upon the resources that will be provided by the employer during this period.