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11 probation review questions all managers should ask their new staff

Your new starter’s probation period is coming to an end. It’s time to sit down, reflect, and plan the next steps. So, where to start? With some great probation review questions of course.

The probation period gives you time to assess the abilities and fit of any new employee. It also allows your new employee to see how they like the job, culture, and work environment. The questions you ask during a probation review are vital. But before we get to what you should be asking, let’s look at a few other key points.

What are probation reviews for? 

A probation review meeting is a time for the manager and new hire to talk over the first few weeks or months of an employee's new role. If the probation period has been a success, this review meeting is a great place to ask questions about how best to support your new employee. If not, it’s used to understand why they experienced difficulty.

Probation reviews are a lot like any other formal review or 1:1 meeting you have with an employee. Their effectiveness hinges entirely on the questions you ask and what you do with the feedback. They're a valuable learning opportunity for both of you, whether you plan to offer them the job or not.

Probation reviews can also be useful for existing employees taking on new roles. For example, if someone has stepped up or sideways for career progression. There's some different questions you can ask in this type of probation review, and we'll cover those here too.

When should a probation review take place? 

A typical probation review for new hires takes place at the end of a probationary period. This tends to be between three and six months after an employee starts at the company. For existing employees in new roles, a month will be long enough.

Good managers use regular touch points throughout the new hire's probation. They don't wait until the end of the probation period to ask questions to get review how they're doing. Weekly10 employee check-ins help new employees to share their early wins and challenges, and ask for help form their manager. And they give managers the right balance between updates and two-way feedback.

Why do probation reviews matter? 

For permanent hires, probation reviews help you plan their immediate future with your company. But you also have to determine what support they'll need to aid their professional development.

For those who don't succeed, probation reviews provide valuable insight about the problems they encountered. If you've recently lost an employee, don't assume it's just a one-off. You have to look out for problematic elements embedded in workplace culture.

11 questions to ask a new hire in a probation review

So, we’ve gotten the what, when and why out of the way. Now, let’s look at the sort of probation review questions you ought to be asking.

1. How has working here compared to your expectations?

This is always a useful question to ask, but it’s especially important if the employee has failed their probationary period. Sometimes, the expectations a company sets for its potential applicants is what dooms them. If the reality of actually working there doesn't match the picture you've painted, it'll be hard to bounce back.

A recruitment ad might promise a lively atmosphere and a cutting-edge office space, only for the reality to be beige walls, humming fluorescent lights and chronic depression. False expectations set up a loss of engagement when they don’t become reality. Disengagement can seriously affect productivity, and is likely to drive turnover if left unchecked.

2. How would you describe your performance over the past 3 months?

This is another question that benefits from a qualitative format. But it can also be worth pairing it with a rating scale to boost insight. Like most good probation review questions, this one avoids leading the reviewee. It’s a good question for contextualising performance. If a failed employee thinks they were performing brilliantly, that’s a clear indictment of their manager’s feedback capabilities. For successful hires, this question is vital for achieving a shared understanding as manager and employee.

3. Is there anything that you felt negatively affected your performance?

This question gives employees the freedom to discuss any problems or blockers they encountered. These could be issues with office equipment, a problematic manager, or noisy and disrespectful colleagues. Generally, you should know going into the meeting whether you’ll be offering the position or not. But this question can provide valuable context that it's worth taking into account.

4. Do you understand the expectations of your role?

Gallup revealed that half of employees don't understand their responsibilities. And we're definitely feeling the effects of this now. More than half of UK employees entering the workforce are now doing so while lacking necessary digital skills. Meanwhile, only 9% of employees in the US agreed they regularly knew what was going on in their company. That seriously throws their ability to work effectively into question.

So, while this can just be a yes/no question, you won’t get much out of it if you leave your probation review questions at that. It’s worth having the employee tell you what they think your expectations are. That way, you can achieve a shared understanding with successful hires. This is vital for you better understand what went wrong with those who were unsuccessful.

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Probation review question template

5. What do you feel are your greatest strengths?

Strengths-based management is one of the strongest tools in your arsenal for building employee self-motivation. So, asking this question should be a no-brainer. Even if it came up during the application interview, three months in a new role might make someone re-evaluate themselves.

Strengths-based management is great for enabling employees to thrive and take pride in their work. Sure, it's great to help employees gain new skills and improve on their weaknesses. But people's strengths are often the things they take passion in. You just won't get the same results forcing people down paths that don't interest them.

6. What would you like to achieve in the next six months?

Goal-setting is vital for the effective development of your people. Not just during probation reviews, but every time your employees answer their check-in questions. Whilst organisational goals and targets obviously need to be a focus, all your people (but especially your new recruits) should have personal goals to aim for. These are most beneficial when they are goals set by the individual and supported by their manager. So dig in and find out what it is that your employee is looking to get out of their next six months with you.

7. How can I help you develop over the next 6 months?

Essential to being a great manager is the ability to effectively support your people and help them grow. It’s hard to do that well without actually asking them what they feel they need. New starters are always likely to be more demanding when it comes to your help, but a little effort now sets them (and therefore you) up for success moving forward.

8. What could we have done differently to improve your first three months here?

Probation reviews are as much about you and the company as they are your new employees. It’s unlikely your new employee's experience is perfect 100% of the time. There are always learnings to be found and improvements to be made. Ask questions that encourage honest feedback during the probation review around what can be done better next time. You not only build a better onboarding experience but you strengthen trust and rapport with your current staff.

9. Is there anything you would change about how you approach your work?

This question won’t matter too much if you already have a strong emphasis on employee autonomy. But if employees are expected to follow a rigid protocol, this question can expose flaws in your method.

Sometimes, there's an objective best way to do something. But other times, forcing someone to apply another person’s method will just slow them down and muddy the results. This question forces you to reconsider whether some office protocols are actually holding your employees back. While there are instances where it isn’t the most suitable approach, autonomy is often a great way of boosting wellbeing and job satisfaction.

10. How do you see your future with us progressing?

Employee turnover is the looming spectre that any good manager is on the lookout for. Granted, this question is pointless if you’re not giving them the job. But if you are, the answer to this question may make you reconsider.

Letting an employee go during or at the end of probation is much less legally complicated than firing them after that point. But even your most promising fresh talent could still be planning to quit after six months anyway. New employees are an investment, especially post-probation. If you’re going to invest in upskilling someone, you want to know that they’re sticking around for a while.

11. Do you have any questions for me during this probation review?

This tells you if the employee is engaged and hungry to progress. The employee may ask you some questions about your own goals or ambitions. Be open and honest, this encourages them to be transparent about their own career aspirations too.

3 alternative questions to ask a newly promoted employee in a promotion review

1. How does working in this team compare to your expectations?

Every team operates differently. And so do managers. That's why it's important to understand how your new team member is fitting into team dynamics. Is their a clash of personalities, cross-wires on workload, or is everything going swimmingly?

2. What best practice have you brought (or would you like to bring) across from your previous role?

Hiring internally means the employee should be up to speed on company products and services, norms and objectives. There's less ramp up time. Which means knowledge transfer on those less tangible skills can happen quicker. Ask your new team member to share their old team's best practice so you can learn from them. And perhaps streamline processes too.

3. What can I do to support you to succeed?

You know the person you've promoted into your team is great. Otherwise you wouldn't have hired them. But it's now time to set them up to succeed. Do they need more flexibility because of home commitments? Are their new goals or objectives clear? And do they know exactly what you expect of them? It's easy to bring old habits into new teams, so getting clear right from the start is critical to everyone's success.

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Probation review question template