Using the probationary period for skills-based hiring
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Using the probationary period for skills-based hiring

February 12, 2024

In December, the Office of Personnel Management took an important step to improve federal hiring. It issued new guidance directing agencies to make better use of probationary periods, a time during which the government can assess an employee’s performance in a new position before finalizing the selection.

Probationary periods are critical for agencies to evaluate how new employees perform on the job—which remains the most accurate predictor of employee success and fit even as agencies and Congress turn more toward skill evaluations in federal hiring. Our government should be using this important tool much more frequently to build an effective talent base.

Why is the probationary period underused? 

Making a final job offer and having a new employee agree to join the federal government is not the end of the hiring process.

The probationary period for newly hired federal employees —in recent times, a period of about a year—has been around since the 1880s. That’s just about the same time as the start of the nonpartisan civil service itself. So why renew attention to this tool in the age of practically instant global communication, advanced technology and new ways of working?

Unfortunately, despite being a long-standing assessment tool in the hiring toolbox, few agencies and supervisors use the probationary period to its full potential, allowing deadlines to pass and probationary employees to gain permanent status on autopilot.

Some hiring managers worry about being unfairly dinged for a new hire that doesn’t work out. Others believe that the trouble of creating new vacancies and going through additional hiring processes is worse than simply keeping struggling employees in their position and hoping for the best.

The Office of Personnel Management is working to reverse these trends. In its December guidance, OPM directs agencies to send reminders to supervisors four months before new employees’ probationary periods end, and then once again one month prior. It also suggests that agencies advise supervisors to make affirmative decisions about probationers’ fitness for continued employment, providing practical tips and best practices. The Partnership has long advocated for federal supervisors to document explicit decisions on whether to retain new employees, and we’re pleased to see OPM reinforce this idea here.

Next steps for strengthening OPM guidance  

In the future, OPM should build on this guidance. One possibility would be encouraging agencies to incorporate the central elements of this guidance into supervisor performance plans, which would hold supervisors accountable for following probationary period best practices. OPM should also encourage agencies to collect and monitor data on the reminders sent to supervisors about probationary period expirations and the follow-up actions taken by supervisors of probationary employees as a result. 

The probationary period may be an old tool, but it deserves a look with fresh eyes. Improving its use is a low-hanging fruit for holding agencies and federal employees accountable for performance and encouraging emerging best practices in skills-based hiring while maintaining a nonpartisan civil service free of unfair political bias. Let’s commend OPM for promoting its proper and effective use across government and encourage all federal supervisors to fully use this opportunity to strengthen their management practices.

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