Employers frequently misuse probation agreements to get rid of employees instantly because:

  • The employee has committed misconduct
  • The employer wants to make space for a friend or cousin of the owner
  • The employee ‘does not fit in’
  • A manager ‘does not like the employee’s face’

As probation is not a licence to fire, ‘James Bond’ employers who think they have ‘007’ licences to fire at will are likely to fall foul of ‘Dr No’ arbitrators at the CCMA. In labour law, ‘probation’ simply means ‘testing the employee’s work performance’.

A probationary employee is one who has a conditional employment contract (written or unwritten). That is, the continuation of the contract is conditional on whether the employee’s work performance during the probationary period shows that he or she is or is not able to carry out the work properly. While this describes the purpose of the probationary period it does not mean that the employer has a free licence to fire the probationer if the employer believes his or her performance to be unsatisfactory.

The employer is allowed to extend the employee’s probation period in order to further assess the employee’s performance. This might occur, for example, where the employee shows promise but has made some errors, or the opportunity for evaluation has been reduced during the initial probation period.

However, before extending the probation period, the employer is required to give the employee the opportunity to make representations as regards the proposed extension.

The biggest mistake that employers frequently make is believing that the conditional nature of the probationary employment significantly reduces the probationer’s labour law rights. On the contrary, the employer that places an employee on probation has a number of legal obligations including:

  • Making it clear that the employee is on probation
  • Clarifying the length of the probation period
  • Setting reasonable performance standards
  • Specifying for and explaining to the employee the performance standards required
  • Evaluating and monitoring the employee’s performance against the set performance standards
  • Informing the employee of performance shortcomings
  • Issuing warnings to the employee where he or she is failing to meet the required standards
  • Assisting, guiding, counselling, training the employee where necessary
  • Before dismissing the probationer, giving him or her an opportunity to state his or her case.

For example, in the case of Fraser vs Caxton Publishers (2005, 3 BALR 323) the employee was fired for falsifying her CV and for incompatibility. She took the matter to the CCMA where the arbitrator agreed she was indeed guilty of this misconduct and that it was serious enough to merit dismissal. Despite this, the arbitrator found the dismissal to be unfair because the employer had not given the employee a chance to defend herself against the charges.

In the case of Tharratt vs Volume Injection Products (Pty) Ltd (2005, 6 BALR 652) the employee was dismissed during his probation period for poor performance. As the employer had failed to investigate the cause of the poor performance, the CCMA found the dismissal to be unfair. The employer was therefore ordered to pay the employee compensation equal to three months’ remuneration.

These cases highlight the fact that probationary employees are strongly protected by labour law. At the same time, probationary employees often do not work out as well as was hoped. While the law allows the dismissal of such failed employees the employer must follow strict procedures first.

Probation can be a very useful tool for the employer, but it must only be used after the employer has utilised labour law expertise in:

  • Designing a probationary policy and procedure
  • Setting realistic performance standards
  • Designing measures for monitoring and evaluating work performance
  • Training management in probation law and in the implementation of the probation policy and procedure.

To book for our LABOUR LAW UPDATES seminar on November 9 please contact Ronni on 0845217492 or ronni@labourlawadvice.co.za.