by Dino Londis

What is the difference between a probationary period and at-will employment? Most workers in the U.S. are at-will, meaning that either they or their company can terminate the employment for any cause at all. During a probationary period, a company evaluates a new employee for a period of usually ninety days, and during that time can terminate without any legal, moral or ethical commitment. In some companies, new employee don't get benefits, such as insurance or paid sick days, during this time.

Surviving the Probationary PeriodAccording to John C. Gilliland II of Gilliland and Markette LLP, "The concept of probationary periods arose from union contracts, which usually provide that employees may only be discharged 'for cause.' Union contracts also commonly have a grievance procedure culminating in independent arbitration to determine whether management had sufficient cause to discharge an employee. As a result, employers often negotiate a probationary period during which management may discharge an employee without him having access to the grievance procedure and arbitration."

So without a union or a grievance procedure - and I'm pretty sure most people reading this won't have a union to step in for them - the probationary period is more of an informal, continual evaluation by HR and your supervisor. It's really the final phase of the job interview. In either situation you can be fired for any reason, but it's a rule of thumb that the microscope is lifted when you cross that 90-day mark.

And a Microscope It Is

In a perfect world, your actions would be scrutinized only by management during the probationary period. In the real world most everyone has a say on how the new guy or gal is doing. Years ago, I was training my replacement at a firm and the guy left at 5 on the dot every day. He was a good man and a good fit for the company, but IT doesn't stop at 5 p.m. He might have thought I was irrelevant because I was leaving, yet it was me he needed most to impress.

This kind of soft skill almost always boils down to company politics. Even if you're qualified for your job and are able to do it, you need to demonstrate that you fit into the politics of the organization. This is the key to surviving. Some employees will like you, others won't, and still others won't care. Talented people are often pushed aside in favor of less-talented folks, just because of who likes whom. 

A Difficult Colleague

An employee who just doesn't seem to like you, and also has the supervisor's ear, is dangerous. You'll need to win them over. In my experience, it was an older guy threatened by me for whatever reason. I put him at ease by asking his advice on technology and procedures. It's amazing how someone softens up when they can offer you advice.

No Time to Show Off

When you leave one company for another, you leave all the trust you've built up behind. Any mistake you make at the new firm is magnified, and will shape opinions of you. In IT, our actions can have an impact on a great number of people. A bad group policy, or the wrong switch on the firewall, and half the company will be affected. So you need to fully understand the systems you're working with. Each organization has its own tweaks that aren't really documented anywhere. For example, that group policy might negate another group policy in a lower OU. Ask for help on technical decisions you feel even semi-comfortable with.

Dress to Fit In  

Be keenly aware of how others dress, and don't assume everyone is dressing correctly. Use HR and your supervisor as your primary examples. Of course it's safer to overdress than underdress. A tie when you're not sure, jeans only when everyone else is wearing them.  

The Other Probation

If you enter a probationary period because of a poor review, you should seriously consider looking for other work. You can't be really excel your way out of this stigma. The company may be using your probation as a formality on the way to removing you. If you're put on probation, get a clear definition of how long it will last and what expectations you have to meet in order to have it lifted.

I've weathered this experience. I found no way out of it. If something went wrong and I was even vaguely involved with it, it became my fault. Tarnished with the probation label, I was afraid to do anything for fear it would explode in my hands. So I would sit on my hands, which caused other problems and other failures.

Dino Londis is an applications management engineer in New York.