Making Better Use of the Probationary Period

The MSPB has found that the probationary period is not extensively used, but there are steps agencies can take to utilize it more effectively.

Improving use of the probationary period starts with improving communication.

When a hiring manager selects a new employee, is that the end of the hiring process? In many cases, no.

Most employees who are new to Federal service or new to supervisory or management positions have to serve a probationary period during which the employee can be removed from the position if performance is not satisfactory. Therefore, MSPB has long viewed the probationary period as an extension of the applicant assessment process.

MSPB’s research has shown that the probationary period is not used extensively to separate employees who are not able to perform in their new positions. We have also identified a number of barriers that make it difficult to use the probationary period fully.

However, there are many steps agencies can take to improve their ability to use the probationary period. A good place to start is with communicating with probationers and their supervisors about the process.

Many of these steps were discussed in MSPB’s prior research and have since been integrated into the “Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service Act of 2017” (or the EQUALS Act), which has been working its way through Congress. The good news for agencies is that these steps do not actually require legislation—agencies can integrate them into their probation programs today.

Communicate with probationers

Before they accept a job, candidates need to understand that they will be required to serve a probationary period, what they need to do to succeed, and the consequences for failing. This communication should occur through job opportunity announcements, job offer documentation, and discussions with the Human Resources (HR) staff.

Once candidates accept the position, regular communication between probationers and their supervisors is critical to effectively using probationary periods. Probationers need to understand how they are doing throughout the process and what the agency will do to help them succeed in the new position. Therefore, supervisors need to establish clear performance standards, set benchmarks for successful performance, assess and strive to meet training needs, evaluate performance, and regularly communicate with probationers to let them know how they are doing.

Prepare probationers’ supervisors

Probationers’ supervisors have the primary responsibility for administering the probationary period. Therefore, they should be properly prepared to carry out their responsibilities. Supervisors should receive training regarding their role during the probationary period, how to manage probationers’ performance, and the process for finalizing probationers’ selections at the end of the period.

Establish probationary period touchpoints

HR should have a consistent process to notify supervisors (1) when a new hire is required to serve a probationary period, (2) at the midpoint of the probationary period, and (3) when the probationary period is coming to an end. Although the supervisor should be keeping track of this information already, timely communication from HR will support the supervisor’s efforts.

Require certification of successful completion

Per current regulations, probationers’ appointments are automatically finalized unless supervisors or HR staffs take specific action to intervene. To ensure that underperforming probationers do not slip through the cracks, agencies can institute internal processes that require supervisors to proactively certify that probationers have met the requirements of probation before the end of the period. This step would create more accountability for the decision whether to keep the new employee. Just keep in mind that because regulations do not require certification, lack of certification is not grounds for termination. Therefore, the agency must keep on top of the process. 

These few simple steps may not solve all of the problems with administering the probationary period, but they can help improve knowledge and accountability.

Laura Shugrue is a Senior Research Analyst with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and has worked in the Federal human resources field for over 20 years.

This column was originally published in the U.S. Merit System Protection Board’s newsletter, Issues of Merit, and has been re-posted here with permission from the author. Visit to read more of MSPB’s newsletters and studies on topics related to Federal human capital management, particularly findings and recommendations from their independent research.