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10 great probation review questions all managers should be asking their new starters

Your new starter’s probation period is over. 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 trial gives you tie 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 you’re offering up.

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? 

Basically, probationary reviews are meetings used to determine if new hires will be kept on. If you decide to hire them, the meeting helps determine 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.

When should a probation review take place? 

A typical probationary period is measured at twelve weeks or three months. It starts at the earliest available opportunity after the initial hiring process.

But managers should be using continuous performance tools (such as an employee check-in) from day one - this helps paint a better picture of the experience your new starter is having.

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 wash out, 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.

What questions should I ask 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 practically any problem they encounter. 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?

Back in 2015, 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 it 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.

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.

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/we 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 experience is 100% perfect for 100% of your people 100% of the time. There is always learnings to be found and improvements to be made.

By asking for some honest feedback 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.

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