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What Happens If You Fail Probation At Your New Job: 9 Steps To Take

If a company terminates you during probation, feelings of anger and frustration may result. What happens if you fail probation may initially be a feeling that you fell short, or that the employer failed to live up to their promises or your expectations.

In nearly all circumstances, legal recourse will not be successful for probationary at-will employees being terminated. The steps below may help.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” ― Confucius, early Chinese philosopher

A Probationary Period Defined

A probationary period is a set length of time when an employer evaluates an employee with greater scrutiny. This may occur after a person is hired or promoted. In certain circumstances, a new probationary period may follow an incident or serve as a disciplinary measure with an expectation of improved performance.

This period lasts for a period of time defined by policy, such as one month, 90 days, or six months. During probation, an employee receives extra training and should expect additional supervision. As both parties explore whether they are a good fit, the probationary period also allows the employer to terminate the relationship with shorter notice.

Probation from the Employer’s Perspective

From the employer’s perspective, policy should clearly define and outline expectations for a required probationary period. Documents should use language that indicates a person’s employment status during probation as “at-will” and permit termination without notice. During this period, the employer should mentor the employee, document performance, and regularly communicate expectations.

Employers often institute probationary periods under four circumstances. The first occurs for a defined period after the initial hire. Depending on the employer’s personnel policies, a set probationary period may also occur when an already-established employee is under review for a different position, accepts a position with supervisory responsibilities, or faces consequences as a disciplinary matter.

In each of these circumstances, the employee should expect enhanced supervision, training, and feedback. Regular evaluations regarding work performance and assigned duties may occur. New hires may also have reduced benefits during their initial probationary period.

In some cases, an employer may wish to extend this probationary period. When this happens, the employer should provide a clear explanation in writing to support the extension. Verbal communications and undocumented performance expectations lack clarity for all parties involved.

Unlike most industrialized countries, nearly all employment in the United States is “at-will.” This means that most employers do not have to show cause to dismiss an employee and can terminate them for any reason, as long as it is not one prohibited by law. However, all employees–including those under probation–have some protection guaranteed under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

9 Steps You Can Take to Address What Happens if You Fail Probation

1. Pay Extra Attention during Onboarding

Although this step may be too late for the present job, an important lesson is to listen carefully and take notes during an orientation sessions for future positions. Ask questions if anything seems unclear or ambiguous. Learn relevant policies beyond the usual requirements for punctuality and attendance.

By the time you attend your onboarding, the employer has already made a financial commitment to you as a probationary employee with your salary and benefits. It is in their financial interest for you to complete probation, not fail it. This is a time when they expect you to spend time becoming familiar with human resources policies.

Inquire about the process for probationary reviews. Determine the training or support services available. Clarify what catchall phrases such as “other duties as assigned” actually mean within your job description.

2. Become Familiar with Company Policies and Procedures

Long before any difficulties arise, carefully review the employee handbook or online resources available through the personnel office. Be careful to distinguish between an uncommunicated belief and rules or guidelines in place. Just because a person believes something to be true or sensible does not make it the correct course of action.

Generally speaking, most companies issue policies and procedures that explicitly state employees may be terminated at any time during probation. Written or verbal statements by your supervisor, even if documented, may not offer a suitable response to the employer’s decision to terminate you.

3. Take Time to Decompress

Sometimes, circumstances you cannot identify or change will prompt your termination. Budgetary and strategic decisions beyond your supervisor’s control may have played a role. Someone in the chain of command may have decided that you were not the “best fit” for the company.

For your part, what happens if you fail probation should involve some time for reflection and contemplation. Think about your talents, wants, and needs. Consider this door that just closed the end of an unproductive path and a chance to find a better one.

4. Remember that One Job Does Not Define You

Setbacks happen in life. What happens if you fail probation at one venue should not define you for the remainder of your working years. An employer’s failure to see your potential does not diminish your talents, skills, and training.

As you decompress and reflect, take some time to perform a SWOT analysis on this experience while your memory is fresh: Consider the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats involved.

What strengths did your presence bring? How or why did the employer perceive some aspects of your work as weaknesses? Which opportunities attracted you to that position, and did they somehow create threats that led to your termination?

5. Reappraise Your Career Path

Distinguish between the transactional traits of a job and a larger sense of worth derived from a career. Think about long-term career strategies that may offer greater rewards than the short-term benefits of a stressful job that may pay better at this moment.

Answer these questions: What are you ready, able, and willing to do? Do you have sufficient energy and the right personality to accomplish these goals?

6. Consider Resigning, If Offered that Option

If your employer notifies you that you will be terminated while on probation, consider talking with them about the possibility of submitting your resignation. In some cases, termination may occur without notice and this option may not exist. However, if there is an opportunity to resign, this may be beneficial in some situations.

When you submit a resignation, you will not have the experience of being “fired” on your record. By choosing to resign, you will have an opportunity to explain why you left an employer. Also, you can give your explanation while truthfully asserting that you made the decision to leave through the notice you gave the employer.

7. Consider Legal Options, Only If Appropriate

As an at-will employee on probation, your employer has a broad ability to terminate you for reasons related to attendance, work performance, and conduct. However, from the first day on the job, you, as a probationary employee, do have protection against certain types of discrimination.

Although these vary by jurisdiction, areas of protection may include age, disability, gender, maternity status, and race. Some laws also protect whistleblowers from retaliation.


8. Avoid Burning Bridges

Tempting as it may seem, refrain from letting your anger or emotions break connections that might prove helpful in the future. Few employers will give overtly negative references so as to avoid litigation, but leaving in a negative or hostile way might discourage them from offering any statement affirming your time there.

If you must attend an exit interview, set aside your ego or frustration. Voice any concerns you have about your time there, but do so professionally. Ask the human resources representative if a reference or (at least) employment verification can be provided.

9. Prepare to Address the Situation in Future Interviews

Honesty offers the best approach when explaining what happens if you fail probation in an earlier job. Although the tendency might be to find a way to “spin” the situation, a lie told in this interview might lead to another dismissal either during or after probation.

Whenever possible, avoid general statements such as, “That job wasn’t a good fit for me.” How you move forward will vary depending on your location. For example, in places with “ban the box” provisions that give those with legal offenses a chance to explain circumstances or mitigating factors, you may also be able to postpone giving specific details about a firing during probation until offered an interview.

Remain transparent. Acknowledge that you have moved forward from that situation, learning a better way to handle whatever difficulties you encountered at your former employer. Focus on the positive aspects of the new job that led you to submit an application.

“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes — understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”— Arianna Huffington (1950 – ), author and entrepreneur

Remember that what happens if you fail probation today does not have to close all doors in the future!

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