By Vaughan Granier

Whether it’s four weeks or three months, probation periods in the New Zealand workplace serve as a crucial time for both Kiwi employers and employees to get to know each other. They allow time for both parties to assess everything from the business’s office culture and environment to the employee’s suitability and skills for the role.

As much as we wish that the interview and selection process was infallible, a new employee’s performance or fit is never certain, and steps need to be taken to address this. Managing performance effectively during this probationary period is essential for the success of the employment relationship.

In this article, we explore the key considerations and legal aspects employers must remember when managing performance during the probation period in New Zealand.

It starts with understanding what a probation period is

Probation periods typically last for an average of three months, although in specific circumstances they can be longer. Regardless of the length, employers must:

  • Specify why and what’s being measured;
  • Clearly outline the terms of probation in the employment agreement; and
  • Ensure both parties agree to the terms.

During this period, the employer evaluates the employee’s performance, suitability, and overall fit within the organisation by:

1. Setting clear expectations

Managing performance effectively begins with setting clear expectations and goals from the start of the probation period. This means employers must:

  • Clearly define the employee’s role, responsibilities, and performance standards;
  • Provide a written job description outlining performance objectives;
  • Establish fair and measurable benchmarks for evaluation; and
  • Guide the employee to meet these expectations.

In addition, a strong induction process ensures things are made clear and allows the employee to seek further clarity if they don’t already have it. If action needs to be taken, the employer can point to the job description and the induction process and be confident in the expectations it has of the employee.

2. Regular and consistent communication

Regular communication plays a vital role in managing performance during the probation period. Employers should provide ongoing feedback and discuss expectations, achievements, and areas for improvement. This can be done through regular performance reviews or informal catch-up meetings. Open and honest communication fosters a supportive environment and allows for the identification and resolution of any performance issues that may arise.

These conversations need to have a positive intent and be structured to help the employee to succeed.

3. Documenting performance issues

It’s essential to maintain detailed records of any performance and disciplinary issues that occur during the probation period. Documentation should include specific incidents, dates, and any conversations or actions taken to address the issues. These records serve as evidence of the employer’s efforts to address performance concerns in a timely and positive manner in the instance the probation period isn’t successful, and termination becomes necessary.

4. Support and training

During the probation period, employers should provide adequate support and training to help employees meet performance expectations. This may involve:

  • Assigning a mentor.
  • Providing additional training opportunities.
  • Offering resources to enhance the employee’s skills.

It’s at this point businesses can try to answer this question before making any employment decisions: What’s causing performance issues?

The business can evaluate:

  • Whether performance issues are a result of inadequate training.
  • If system issues are to blame.
  • Is there a lack of clarity?
  • Is additional support needed?

5. Performance Improvement Plans

In cases where an employee’s performance isn’t meeting the required standards, or where discipline issues are significant enough to cause concern, employers should consider implementing a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP outlines specific performance expectations, areas requiring improvement, and a timeline for achieving the desired outcomes. It provides a structured approach to address performance issues and gives the employee a clear path for improvement.

It’s crucial to ensure that the PIP is fair, reasonable and provides adequate support to the employee. Given that probation periods have very specific time limits, and usually employers have a maximum of two months to resolve their concerns, a PIP can be relatively shorter than normal, but this doesn’t absolve the employer of the responsibility to be fair and reasonable.

6. Fair treatment and due process

Throughout the probation period, it’s important to treat employees fairly. This includes adhering to principles of natural justice, such as providing the employee with the opportunity to respond to any performance concerns or allegations. Employers should conduct investigations in a fair and unbiased manner and afford employees the right to be heard.

7. Termination of employment in New Zealand

If, after appropriate support and efforts to address performance issues, an employee’s performance remains unsatisfactory, termination of employment may be considered. In such cases, it’s important to follow the correct procedures so there can’t be a successful claim of unfair dismissal or constructive dismissal. Employers must ensure that the grounds for termination are valid, reasonable, and justifiable. The employee should be allowed to respond, and a fair and unbiased decision-making process should be followed.

You’ll require specific guidance on how to write an employee termination letter under NZ employment law, so follow this article.

Managing performance during the probation period is crucial for both employers and employees. And by setting clear expectations, providing regular feedback, documenting performance issues, and offering support and training, employers can maximise the chances of successful outcomes during this period. Adhering to employment law, including fair treatment and due process, is essential to ensure compliance and minimise legal risks. Of course, you’ll want to know what the law is – so it’s a good idea to talk to HR Assured’s 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.

Lastly, if you’re unsure of the difference between an employee trial period and a probation period under NZ employment law, read this helpful article.

If any of this information has raised any questions about how your business should manage performance during the probation period or you have another workplace matter you need assistance with, please reach out to our workplace relations experts.

Not an HR Assured client? To learn more about how HR Assured can help your business, contact us here.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years’ experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across all areas of HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.