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Rethinking Probationary Periods: Moving Beyond the 90-Day Mirage

By April 29, 2024No Comments

In the world of Human Resources (HR), the 90-day probationary period has long been hailed as standard practice for new hires. It’s seen as a buffer, a time for both the employer and the employee to assess compatibility and performance before making any long-term commitments. However, scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find that this tradition often falls short of its promises. These probationary periods don’t offer the protection organizations believe they do, usually serving as little more than a gateway to healthcare benefits. Here’s why it’s time to rethink the efficacy of the 90-day probationary period.

To start, let’s address the arbitrary nature of the 90-day timeframe. There’s little empirical evidence to support the notion that this period is sufficient for accurately gauging an employee’s long-term potential or fit within an organization. Human beings are complex, and their ability to adapt to new roles varies widely. Some may hit the ground running, while others may require more time to acclimate. By rigidly adhering to a one-size-fits-all probationary period, companies risk overlooking valuable talent or prematurely dismissing individuals who could have flourished given more time and support.

Moreover, how probationary periods are often implemented leaves much to be desired. Too often, the focus is on completing paperwork and ticking boxes rather than fostering genuine mentorship and support for new hires. HR departments may view the probationary period as a mere formality, neglecting meaningful assessment and development opportunities. This checkbox mentality undermines the original intent of probationary periods as a time for mutual evaluation and adjustment.

Furthermore, the legal landscape surrounding employment further undermines the efficacy of probationary periods. In many jurisdictions, at-will employment laws allow employers to terminate workers for any reason, with or without cause, at any time—even within the 90-day probationary period. This legal reality renders the supposed protection offered by probationary periods a mirage in the desert, as employees can still be let go without warning or recourse.

Additionally, the fixation on healthcare benefits eligibility as the primary milestone within the probationary period highlights a fundamental flaw in its design. Rather than focusing on assessing fit, performance, and cultural alignment, the probationary period often becomes synonymous with simply “putting in the time” to qualify for benefits. This narrow perspective diminishes the period’s potential as a valuable opportunity for both parties to evaluate and adjust expectations, potentially leading to missed opportunities for meaningful dialogue and development.

In light of these shortcomings, it’s clear that the traditional 90-day probationary period is due for reevaluation and a new title. Organizations should adopt a more flexible and nuanced approach to onboarding and orientation instead of adhering to a rigid timeline and using the term “probation” for a new hire’s onboarding and orientation period. This time of orientation and onboarding might involve extending orientation periods for roles that require longer acclimation periods or implementing ongoing performance evaluations and feedback mechanisms to support employee growth and development.

Ultimately, the goal of any orientation period should be to foster mutual understanding, alignment, and success. By moving beyond the confines of the 90-day mirage and embracing more holistic and dynamic approaches to talent management, organizations can better position themselves to identify, nurture, and retain top talent for the long haul.

If you would like to discuss this further or any other HR situation or challenge, please email us at

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For more than 40 years, 501(c) Services has been a leader in offering solutions for unemployment costs, claims management, and HR support to nonprofit organizations. Two of our most popular programs are the 501(c) Agencies Trust and 501(c) HR Services. We understand the importance of compliance and accuracy and are committed to providing our clients with customized plans that fit their needs.

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The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.

(Images by Daniel-007 and Kwangmoop)


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