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Common Handbook Mistake #3

Communication is a two way street. It is not just the message that you send it also involves how the recipient perceives the message. This is where some employers drop the ball. The message sent by management to their workforce makes complete sense to management but it is perceived differently by their workforce. How does this happen? It’s like the industrialist and the environmentalist standing on the side of a river. The industrialist says, “What a beautiful site!” The environmentalist says, “It is a beautiful sight.” The message is correct. The perception is also correct. One person, however, is not communicating in terms that are clear to the other. This brings us to…

Mistake 3

Probationary Periods.

I am not a fan of probationary periods. I’ll be blunt. I do not like them. Probationary periods send a mixed message and like the case of the industrialist and the environmentalist, each party has a different understanding about what is meant by a probationary period. Most employees view probationary periods as a window of time in which their performance will be evaluated. They expect that by the end of the probationary period, they will know whether they get to stay with your company. No problem, right? Wrong. The problem is that the term probationary period creates a false expectation on the part of the employee. While management believes that nothing has materially changed, after successful completion of the probationary period, that is, the employee remains terminable “at will,” the employee has a completely different understanding. To the employee, successful completion of the probationary period means they are no longer terminable “at will” but now can only be terminated “for cause.” Two completely different perceptions and nothing will convince either party that they are mistaken. At the end of the day whether you are right or wrong is of little consequence because this is an issue of trust and whether management can be believed. Trust and loyalty are critical components in a workplace that values its human capital.

My other issue with probationary periods is that employees tend to be on their best behavior during the probationary period. Don’t blame the employee. The employee wants to keep their J-O-B and your company told them to mind their P’s and Q’s. Sometimes, not always, after the probationary period ends these employees feel “safe” and no longer feel the need to exhibit the same exemplary traits. By this time your company has invested the past 60, 90, or 120 days training an employee and you are only now seeing who you hired and their real character. The reality is this person is not working out and you will have to start over. Get rid of the probationary period charade. If the employee is truly “at will” then they can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with or without cause. Spend your company’s time, money and energy training an employee who is willing to give their all every day, not just during the probationary period.

Probationary periods also create needless angst in your workforce. Good employees tend to be on edge during the probationary period, worrying that they will be terminated for a capricious reason. As my mom used to say, “The cream always rises to the top.” If it is your desire to create a culture where employees can rise to the top and flourish from day one, you do not start by placing them in an environment where they feel, at least for the first 60, 90 or 120 days that their head is on the chopping block. A workplace culture that values its human capital is created by a management team that understands that communication is key and perception is everything. Your handbook and its contents are part of that communication-perception equation.

When there is a disconnect in the message, employees tend to visit a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to ask questions that are designed to find out what potential claims a client may possess. More often than not, a seasoned lawyer will find claims that are based on completely different theories of liability. I know of any number of individuals that have consulted with me thinking they have, for example, a wrongful termination claim when in fact they had a wage and hour violation. To put it in more clear terms, the only lawyer that should be putting her/his nose in your business is your company lawyer when they are doing an annual review of your policies and procedures. One way to keep people out of your business is to get rid of polices and procedures that create misunderstanding (such as probationary period) thereby encouraging your employees to visit a lawyer.

Till next week,


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