How to Impress During Your Probationary Period

The figure for new staff sacked in their probationary period is widely reported to be one in five. I suspect the true figure is much higher but concealed by discreet mutual arrangements where the newcomer is not welcome after their first few months in the job. Of these, over half fail due to the catch all of “poor performance”. How did it go so wrong? After all, great care was taken to find you. You jumped through endless hoops during the interview and other assessments.  And you were so excited about your new role! You updated LinkedIn and told all your friends. Don’t be one of the casualties of the failed probation.

My message to you is that no one wants to catch you out, but the best interview candidate can start in the new role, be competent and conscientious and yet still fail to impress – forgetting to command respect when you are at your most vulnerable. Why? Because the workplace is at once a catwalk, a marathon, a cocktail party, a snake pit and a jungle.  Because your line manager, the senior management team and Board are scrutinising you when you first start in a new role. Whether or not there is a formal probationary period, your new company’s stakeholders are not yet convinced that they made the correct decision based on your interview.

Look right:

The ancient maxim “you only get one chance to make a good first impression” is sadly as true as it is unfair. You are on a catwalk. You need to quickly scan the new workplace and absorb everything about how the winners look. What do they wear? What language do they use? Are they at their desks til late, in the pub every Friday night together, or out on the road?  You want to strike the balance of blending in while demonstrating that you are a genuine and self-aware individual. While you are learning, you need to make two friends. These are allies who will feed you the subtle information that isn’t included in the corporate induction video but is vital for you to survive. Pick two peers at your level of seniority, who seem quietly confident but not overly vocal, and invite them separately to lunch in your first week.

Each time is the first time:

Your first few work tasks are going to be scrutinised by all. The community that is your new workplace all want to know: do you make mistakes? Can your advice be trusted? Do you miss deadlines? Look after yourself in your first few months, cutting your social life right back, getting early nights and keeping weekends clear to read your notes and take some exercise. This is the marathon stage. You need to be rested and give work enormous concentration during this crucial early period.  Re-read your professional documents before you carry out any project and double check even the facts you could trot out in your sleep.  The so-called ‘halo effect’ means that if you can impress the key people in your new job (your immediate line manager, the big boss, and a handful of respected peers) this buffer to help you through the rest of your first year is vital to invest in. Should you give the impression that you are unreliable, rude, or that you get your facts wrong, the unfair truth is that this reputation may prove impossible to ever shake off.

Remember you are still being tested:

You must consolidate the promises you made at interview, otherwise you are unlikely to be credible in your new post. You must also wow the rest of the key decision makers who were not part of your selection, to avoid sniping and undermining behaviour – childish, yes, but a reality of any workplace. You made sure they knew you were the trouble-shooter for their current problems (see also my article Square Pegs) and you now need to re-state those promises and check which you are expected to deliver on. You need to treat each of your first 100 days in the new job as something of a cocktail party. Smile! Be nice to everyone! Listen carefully without interrupting and bring out your most impeccable manners. Give each person your undivided attention, and train yourself to remember names.

Don’t play games:

You are too new to get away with playing office politics (arguably these are never a good idea). Don’t criticise others unless constructively to their face so they have the opportunity to learn from your feedback. Gossip only makes you look like the problem, even in a snake pit where everyone seems to be at it.  You may well feel resentment towards a colleague who appears to have won over the boss, probably years ago, and now is thought to be a safe pair of hands no matter how lazy he or she is being, managing to maintain an excellent reputation while doing very little. Ignore them. You need to build your own security. Neither get sucked in to their time wasting, nor be tempted to try to grass them up. You never know what power they may hold. They could be the child/secret lover/loan shark of the big boss and therefore untouchable. The rules of the newcomer apply to you and you have to prove yourself.

Play to your strengths:

Don’t forget they chose you for the job and there were good reasons for that. Do you know which of your natural attributes won you the interview? If not, you can ask for feedback, perhaps from the HR team if they were part of your interview. You also want to invest in your own self-awareness whenever you get the opportunity, whether it is using a psychometric tool or asking for 360 degree appraisal information from your peers, staff or customers. It is your responsibility to know how you come across and your failings. Self-awareness is key if you are to quickly demonstrate the value you add, win over your critics and knobble your competitors. If you are successful, you will have rewarded the interview panel for the trust they placed in you. But if you are successful, other people in your new workplace will feel threatened and competitive. It’s a jungle out there!

So remember to look after yourself and give your new job all you have in your first 100 days. You owe it to yourself. No one wants to catch you out, after all, great care was taken to find you. But it would be naïve to forget that your new company’s stakeholders are scrutinising you when you first start in a new role. You will never get such attention again, so use it to your advantage, and show them they were very lucky to get you for their job.

Author: Helen Marsh from Creative HR delivers senior HR management experience to the public, private & charity sectors. Creative HR: Challenge, Collaborate, Create. All views are my own.

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