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Peter Woolcott on probation: APS managers must put new public servants to the test

Managers need to make the most of the probation period for new employees to reduce the chance of having to deal with unsuitable staff members down the track, the Australian Public Service commissioner advises in a reminder that the recruitment process continues long after the position is filled.

“Probation is a critical part of the recruitment process. It is a powerful tool that enables agencies to test whether a person is suited to the Australian Public Service (APS), the agency and the job,” Peter Woolcott told the APS in one of two late-2018 circulars on recruitment matters, the other being about changes around senior executive appointments.

“A decision to end employment during probation is a legitimate action which recognises that not all selection decisions result in an outcome that is right for the employee or the employer.”

A lot of employers find three months is sufficient, and it is common in the APS with the possibility of a further three-month extension. Woolcott thinks six months is a reasonable period, and notes agencies can set even longer periods.

The circular appears to be written with ongoing positions in mind, rather than the limited-term contracts which are now extremely common and often only last for six or 12 months.

During probation, Woolcott says employees should not only learn the basics of how to do the job but also gain a clear understanding of the day-to-day reality, and the standards they will be expected to meet around performance and general workplace conduct. He points out this early period can help the new recruit make an informed decision to either commit to the role or change their mind and back out.



“If probation is not used effectively, it can lead to the engagement of an unsuitable employee and the need to manage underperformance at a later date,” he notes.

“A decision to end employment during probation is a legitimate action which recognises that not all selection decisions result in an outcome that is right for the employee or the employer.”

Telling someone new who is trying to get up to speed that they have not passed probation is difficult but it is much harder to terminate employees after they have a permanent position. The process of terminating probationary staff is is typically very simple although the APSC suggests “underperformance procedures” still apply in some agencies.

If probation periods are taken seriously, all new employees get the best chance to succeed.

There is, of course, the option to extend — “subject to an agency’s employment arrangements and provided this was noted as an option at the outset as a condition of probation” — but this can only happen before the end of the initially agreed period and there should be a good reason, like a long period of unexpected absence.

The commissioner is not prescriptive about how probationary staff should be assessed but says they need to told as early as possible if they are not up to snuff and given a fair chance to improve.

“If poor performance or behaviour is not addressed … during the probation period, it may continue after employment has been confirmed. Managers should take seriously their responsibility to use the probation period effectively to prevent underperformance becoming an issue for the APS into the future.”

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The Mandarin

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