does being put on probation at work mean you're going to get fired?
May 8, 2016 6:50 AM   Subscribe

HR people of Metafilter: my brother has been having trouble at work and had a meeting with HR yesterday where he was put on probation. I’m trying to understand the situation better. Is probation usually just the final formal step a company has to go through before firing someone? Is it possible to be put on probation and still keep your job?

My brother lives far away from all of us. Over the last couple of years it’s become clear to me that he has serious anger management issues, but he won’t work on them and when I talk to him about it, he won’t take responsibility for the way he flips out at people. He says things like, “It just sort of happens." He’s an office worker, and he had to leave his last job because he had several huge inappropriate fights with his last boss.

He found a new job and I knew he’d been having trouble with this new boss too, but I thought it was going better. Then I talked to him last week and found out that he’d exploded at this new boss and apparently that wasn’t the first time. But this time the fight was so bad that the boss set up a meeting the next day with my brother, the boss, and HR. The result of that meeting was that my brother’s on probation, and my brother seems to think that means he has to quit soon and go somewhere else, because otherwise he’ll be fired at the end of the probation period.

I don’t have a lot of experience in typical offices, and my brother isn’t the most reliable narrator at the moment, so I’m here looking for you to help put this in context for me a bit. So, HR people of Metafilter, here are my questions:

How often do you put workers on probation? How serious does it have to be for you to put someone on probation? How often do you end up firing someone after they’ve been put on probation? If they are fired, is it usually because they couldn’t change the behavior that got them on probation to begin with? Do someone people change their behavior enough to stay on? Or is the probation period usually a sort of formality, a last step you have to go through before firing someone? Is there anything else I should know about probationary periods that I'm not thinking of?
posted by colfax to Work & Money (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your brother needs serious help and likely a new job.

An office worker officially "on probation" with HR? That's the last step before firing (that or being put on a "performance plan") -- they're creating the paper trail that justifies firing him. Unless your brother does a complete 180 and starts intensive anger management therapy immediately, apologizes for his behavior to his boss and explains to HR the steps he's taking to manage it, he's probably going to be fired.

Even if he's not fired, his boss is probably never going to trust him again. And if he's not fired this time, he certainly will be the next time he so much as raises his voice in the workplace.

Your brother's behavior is not acceptable in any situation, and is extremely inappropriate in an office. People do NOT "flip out" and "explode" in an office and expect to keep their jobs.

Being fired from two office jobs because of anger management issues should be a huge wake-up call to him that he needs some behavioral help. There's absolutely no shame in this. It's common enough that there are lots of therapists that specialize in anger management! Hopefully your brother takes this situation as an opportunity to improve his life.
posted by erst at 7:06 AM on May 8, 2016 [57 favorites]


His only chance at keeping this job or, at the very least, being allowed to resign with dignity is to enroll himself in an anger management class immediately. HR may even have a few recommendations. If he can find a doctor who will evaluate him and start treating him with medication while he is going through some sort of therapy, he can delay his firing for a bit longer. This could be your moment to convince him to get help and break the cycle, because, yes, probation is the legal process for allowing them to fire him soon.
posted by myselfasme at 7:12 AM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Is it possible to keep your job after being put on probation? Yes.

I was put on probation at an old office job after a particularly bad performance review. I took it as a wake up call, doubled the amount of effort I was putting into the job, and received a glowing review at the end of the probation period, followed by a promotion within the year.

BUT, I was put on probation just for garden variety low effort, particularly failing to complete tasks within a reasonable amount of time. That's pretty different from your brother's situation.

They definitely ARE creating a paper trail to allow them to fire him more easily in the future, and they were doing the same with me. In my case, I was able to turn things around to the degree that they didn't actually want to fire me when the time came. If your brother has been this aggressive and inappropriate, it may well be that there is nothing he could possibly do during the probation period to make his employers decide that they want to keep him on.
posted by 256 at 7:13 AM on May 8, 2016 [12 favorites]


Well, to strictly answer your questions: I do not often put employees on probation-- it needs to be quite serious for me to do that. It's probably 50-50 if they end up keeping the job or being terminated. If they are fired, it's almost always because they couldn't change the behavior that got them on probation to begin with. Some people change their behavior or performance enough to stay on--sometimes enough to just barely hang in there and sometimes a major 360. In some cases, the probation period is just a formality to get them out the door. In others, there really is a hope they can turn things around. What your brother's employer means by putting him on probation is unknowable. But most people in that situation, unless they are 100 percent committed to making radical changes in how they approach their work, would start looking for a new job.

I'm sorry your brother is having a rough go of it; all the best to him.
posted by whitewall at 7:15 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


In my experience, it's possible to keep your job, but rare. Kind of like it's possible to hit an inside the park home run in baseball. It happens, but the vast majority of times, it results in separation. I suspect, without any facts to back this up, that the times it doesn't result in separation are most often due to attention issues; i.e., the employee was slacking off and started paying attention again.

Most states are at-will employment states, so employers can fire any employee at any time for any reason (including no reason). Unless specified by contract, I'm not aware that probation is ever required as a step toward termination. The fact that this company put your brother on probation instead of firing him outright tells me there is interest in maintaining the relationship with him if he can modify his behavior. But that sounds like kind of a big if. What might be happening is that they're trying to cushion his landing. Rather than kicking him out on the street, they're giving him a head start on looking for new jobs.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:15 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Do someone people change their behavior enough to stay on? Or is the probation period usually a sort of formality, a last step you have to go through before firing someone?

It can be either. It's often a mandatory step on the road to firing someone, but the firing is not necessarily a foregone conclusion depending on the circumstances and how the person responds. I think I have done the formal probation thing twice, and in both cases the employee reformed sufficiently to keep their job. In one case I was sure that the next step was going to be firing, but the formal HR process turned out to be a real wake up call and they got with the program. Especially in big organizations, firing can be a real pain the ass so there can be incentives to work with someone who is making an effort.

But in your brother's case, it sounds like the issue is the angry outbursts, not the technicalities of probation. Even if he rides out this probation without any problems, he is one outburst away from being fired and it won't be any different in his next job. There might be some work environments where angry fights are normal, but not in any office I have ever been in.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:17 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


One issue to consider: if he does see a therapist and is diagnosed with something, it might make it more difficult to fire him, since it's related to an official disability. Someone else with more experience than I have could go into more detail, but at the very least, that's a way to get him into therapy, which it sounds like he badly needs.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:26 AM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Companies will often use probation periods as a last step before firing someone - they do not want to lose the time, money, and energy they put into training someone if the problem is fixable. It's not usually a hurdle that's required, but one companies elect to use if they're not 100% sold on the person needing to be fired yet.

Getting out of a probation period usually requires two things - one, zero instances of the existing problem, and two, concrete steps being taken to fix the root issue. It's usually not enough to just "get by" during that period - your brother is going to have to directly deal with his anger issues and show progress.

The reality is - whether he gets out of this period or not, your brother's not going to be allowed to explode on any boss in the future, so regardless he's got to do the work of getting his anger in check whether he gets fired or not.
posted by scrittore at 7:28 AM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Being put on probation is usually that final step before being fired, although it's certainly not a guarantee. Often, probations can be resolved by actually addressing the issue, working hard(er), and showing substantial improvement in the problem area. They want to give people the chance to get better and improve, otherwise they'd have just fired them.

In your brother's case, this probably means the only way out of this is owning up to having a problem, showing he is taking steps to address it, and demonstrating substantial improvement as a result.

And you really need to stress this as a solution - if he truly has anger management issues and won't acknowledge it, then this is just going to be one in a series of similar situations; a perpetual cycle until he realizes his actions are the root cause and seeks help.

On preview, what scrittore said. Jinx!
posted by SquidLips at 7:30 AM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


my brother seems to think that means he has to quit soon and go somewhere else, because otherwise he’ll be fired at the end of the probation period.


This is only true if your brother is going to refuse to work on his problem.

Different workplaces are different. My sister works for state government and probation is a very real thing intended (honestly) to help people work on whatever their issues are in order to keep them in the workplace. In a lot of places it's just making a paper trail to make it easier to fire them and not have them come back with a lawsuit.

Clearly whatever your brother did wasn't so bad as to be fired on the spot, but it may only have been almost that bad and you don't know and you only have your brother's word on it. So basically either he takes this as a wake up call and works on his anger management issues (including probably some level of coming clean with his workplace about this) or he moves on and becomes gradually less and less employable because his resume shows he's got some sort of problem.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'm surprised they didn't just walk him out of the building. Gross insubordination to a manager usually gets someone fired instantly.

It happened to my Mom. She was a manager and one of her subordinates pissed her off in some way, so my Mom exploded and blessed her out. Mom got canned and that was the end of her career. It sucked, but I had been telling her for YEARS that her uncontrolled temper would get her in trouble. (It made me miserable enough as a kid.)

So I'd stress to your brother that he needs to address this ASAP with a mental health evaluation, anger management classes and whatever else professionals tell him to do.

His chances of rehabbing his reputation are pretty slim where he is. My desire to work with someone who thinks that loud, explosive arguments are appropriate is nil.

And yes, if, for some reason there's some proscribed process they have to do at his workplace, probation IS the last step before firing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:41 AM on May 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


erst has it right; it's the beginning of the paper trail. I know because it happened to me (the firing part; not the flipping-out part.)
How old is your brother? Sounds like he has some enormous growing up to do. Tell him he's on the downward slide unless he mellows out; fast.
posted by BostonTerrier at 9:09 AM on May 8, 2016


Probation means he will be fired if he does not demonstrate serious steps taken to fix the problem. For your brother's purposes, it means they are creating the paper trail to fire him and he should quit and find a new job, because he is not interested in taking those serious steps. Probation also means he will be fired for documented cause and not be able to draw unemployment.

This is a big deal. This is not a common thing, in an office environment it's not something done to someone who misses one deadline or files something wrong or is late once.

I have seen people who were just doing crappy work or being lazy take probation as a wake-up call and step up. I have seen people finally give in and get treatment for their ADHD or depression or other mental health disorder and make dramatic improvements because they needed a job more than they needed to continue to deny the problem. There are certainly many employers who use probation as a real tool to fix a problem rather than just a way to legally square everything up before termination.

Your brother's employer is probably being pretty generous in offering probation after a behavioral issue rather than walking him out. They almost certainly expect that he will get treatment for his problem, which is obvious to everyone now because even raising your voice to a supervisor in an office environment is basically unheard of (and unnecessary unless you are a firefighter or combat pilot or something important), much less "flipping out". They are likely expecting him to specifically tell them he's getting professional help for his problem, and maybe even bring them documentation of his disability, in order for him to stay.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:25 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Given his unwillingness to address his anger, I agree with him that termination looms. He needs to job hunt but far more critically, he needs to be checked out medically and psychologically and treated for what is going on with him.
posted by bearwife at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


It really varies from employer to employer. At some places, he would have been instafired as soon as he blew up at his boss, at other places it could take literally years and borderline criminal activity to get fired.

Can you tell us more about his employer? How large of an organization? Government? Unionized?
posted by Jacqueline at 10:09 AM on May 8, 2016


I disagree with people who say that's the last step before getting fired, as if there's a hard and fast flowchart or something. I would only put someone on probation if they were otherwise great employees except for this one unacceptable thing, and I thought there was a chance they could fix the thing. I don't have to put anyone on probation. If what they did is a firing offense, then it is.

I'm reading between the lines here to infer the question is really: should I even bother going through the effort of fixing this if they're just going to fire me anyway? The answer is yes. They don't WANT to fire him, he's making them by continuing to do unacceptable things.

If I were his boss, I wouldn't have let him leave that meeting with any lingering doubt about what he had to do. I would want to see: a) ZERO more instances of this behavior, EVER, AND b) a concrete plan to make that happen so I would know it wasn't just luck. That plan should involve c) some self-reflection and analysis on how we got to this point, in writing. Anger management class is good, and he should absolutely do that (and take credit for that), but more important to me is, why is he so angry in the first place? It's just work, man. This isn't normal. Maybe there is something else from his life bleeding over into his work life? Alcoholism? etc. I don't ideally want to manage anger, I want people to not be cripplingly angry all the time. I'd also want a commitment (and I'm giving one as well on my side) to have more frequent 1:1s about this, maybe daily going to weekly through the probation period, and then after that periodically. He would come to that meeting prepared to discuss how it's going and show me that he's thinking about this and making an effort every day. No shrugging, evasiveness, or defensiveness allowed. And he better have something to say, it's his meeting, not mine.

But I'd be rooting for him, and totally ready to keep him as an employee if he could do those things. Nothing would make me happier. Otherwise I wouldn't go to this effort on my part; I'd just fire him, or give him the maximum suspension I could get away with and then just wait for the next offense.
posted by ctmf at 10:49 AM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Most employers in my experience are unlike ctmf above. They will work to develop flawed employees if they're super high performers and/or extremely likable. But anger management issues? Most employers want to get rid of those people, including because of worries about workplace violence.

Personally, I've put about 15 employees on performance improvement plans / probation over the years, and all but one or two ended up getting fired. I've never done it for anger issues: the one time an employee of mine had a shouting angry tantrum, we fired him immediately. This was all in an office context: there is a little more tolerance for aggressive behaviour, sometimes, in blue-collar jobs.

IME employers don't ordinarily do a PIP or probation until they are pretty much out of patience. I'd say 80% of the time the decision to fire has already been made and they're just waiting for the paperwork to catch up, and 20% of the time it's intended as a wakeup call. (I think an employer is always open to the possibility that an on-track-to-be-fired employee could pull a dramatic turnaround. But they are typically not expecting it, and in my experience it rarely happens.)

And I don't think disability will save your brother. There are some conditions, such as ADHD and bipolar disorder, that may limit a person's ability to control their anger and result in them receiving workplace accommodations under the ADA. But that's a very hard case to make.

I think jessamyn has it right. Your brother needs to take steps to learn to manage his anger, or else he will find himself increasingly unemployable. If I were you, I would make that your focus, not helping him keep this particular job. Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 11:07 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


In terms of anger management, you might want to ask your brother about his benefits package. Mine comes with some form of employee assistance program that helps people deal with various life and emotional crises. Your brother may have access to something like this that will at least help him understand his options and maybe help him find a good program/therapist. He should look into this and take advantage if that's a benefit his employer offers.
posted by brookeb at 11:18 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I should say, I've done this only once (for the same thing) and it worked out fine. The person showed enough commitment to improvement that I felt like my investment in all the extra mentoring would be worth it. That person is now one of my top employees and supervisors of other people in one of the most stressful positions we have. He also is fantastic at recognizing this in his own reports and mentoring them in constructive directions before it becomes an issue. Top marks on his latest performance evaluation. Sometimes people get this way because they're so passionate about the job, which can be a great thing if they can tone it down enough to remember that everyone else is also trying to do what is right and best, even when they disagree.

Your brother's boss is in a game of poker now. He saw enough in your brother that he considered him a "drawing hand" and refused to fold when he could have. Now the stakes are higher - your brother turns around, huge win for the boss's reputation and credibility with his peers and superiors. "I turned around the problem employee" is a rare management superstar moment. But, behavior returns, HUGE loss, having vouched for your brother. His assessment of employees will be suspect for a long, long time. The end of the probation period is when the boss has to make that decision: fold, or all-in?
posted by ctmf at 11:23 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


The more your brother gets fired, obviously, the angrier he will be. So while he should certainly try to turn things around at this job, he should work much harder at finding a new one as soon as possible, before it actually happens.
posted by serena15221 at 11:23 AM on May 8, 2016


The people saying it's possible to turn this thing around are underestimating the seriousness of your brother's actions. FIGHTS? At WORK? Lol wut? I'm a pretty assertive human who doesn't mind disagreements in the workspace, but if an employee flipped out on me I'd be SO done. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Your brother's in crisis. I'm sorry to hear that and hope he gets the help he needs.
posted by jessca84 at 1:28 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I wonder reading this over if there also isn't some intent on your brother to look for a new job so he does not have to work on the core problem. If he thinks being fired is inevitable, then his focus is on a new job, not his problem.

I've seen it go both ways, with probation or performance improvement plans being just a step in the chain to fire someone, or an honest attempt to coach someone. There really isn't anyway to know for sure, but I'd err on finding a new job- he's going to have a hard time redeeming himself. But he should be doing it at the same time he is actively working on his anger issues. There isn't any guarantee he'll find a new job by the end of the probation period as is.

But also, there is only so much you can do for your brother here. If he's in denial, then nothing you can say or do will make him change.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 4:18 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I disagree with people who say that's the last step before getting fired, as if there's a hard and fast flowchart or something. I would only put someone on probation if they were otherwise great employees except for this one unacceptable thing, and I thought there was a chance they could fix the thing. I don't have to put anyone on probation. If what they did is a firing offense, then it is.

Most of the answers here need to be read in light of whatever the actual policies are where your brother works, which none of us know about. At my last job, the HR process was exactly a "hard and fast flowchart," where you moved from verbal warning to written and so on, with no deviations possible and tons of paperwork and meetings at each step; at my current job I could, if I had reasonable cause, point at someone and tell them that they are fired on the spot. Being on probation at a place like the first means something different than at a place where the supervisor has total flexibility about firing and warnings. But either way, the onus is on him to stop acting this way before his options become constrained.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:46 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thank you all very much for your answers. I really appreciate you taking the time.

I wonder reading this over if there also isn't some intent on your brother to look for a new job so he does not have to work on the core problem.

Yes, you just put your finger on my biggest worry that I couldn't quite articulate before.
posted by colfax at 2:20 AM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Most states are at-will employment states, so employers can fire any employee at any time for any reason (including no reason). Unless specified by contract, I'm not aware that probation is ever required as a step toward termination. The fact that this company put your brother on probation instead of firing him outright tells me there is interest in maintaining the relationship with him if he can modify his behavior. But that sounds like kind of a big if. What might be happening is that they're trying to cushion his landing. Rather than kicking him out on the street, they're giving him a head start on looking for new jobs.

...

One issue to consider: if he does see a therapist and is diagnosed with something, it might make it more difficult to fire him, since it's related to an official disability. Someone else with more experience than I have could go into more detail, but at the very least, that's a way to get him into therapy, which it sounds like he badly needs.
I want to point out that both of these posts by kevinbelt make sense together. Even in at-will states there are usually protected classes, like medical disability and so on. But by going through the flow chart of putting someone on probation and creating the paper trail they're showing that his problems prevent him from doing his job properly and generally protecting the company from him suing later on saying he was discriminated against. That's why many companies who could (legally) just fire someone will use the flow chart approach. The cost of keeping someone on for a few months is less than the risk of the law suit.
posted by anaelith at 5:20 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


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