Many companies, especially large ones, impose a mandatory probationary period for new hires. While policies differ from business to business, during this time employees typically aren’t eligible for health care or other similar benefits, and employment can also be terminated at-will by the employer.

While businesses like to use probationary periods as a way to test out new hires in a risk-free way, there are many issues associated with the setup that affect the employees directly. It is these issues that more companies and employee advocacy groups are starting to recognize.

The huge popularity of probationary periods
Probation or “trial employment” isn’t common in every field, but it’s still quite prevalent in some areas that use it extensively. For example, many retail, customer service and food service employers use this method as a means of vetting new hires. According to Human Resource Executive Online, 70 percent of food service companies that were surveyed indicated that they used probationary periods as part of their hiring practices.

But some lawyers and other advocates of employee rights are starting a conversation to move businesses away from this trend. Among some of the headaches probationary periods can bring on hires and employers alike are legal battles over contract verbiage, and some companies may even stand to lose their at-will employment status, especially in non-union environments, the source noted.

Understanding the problems
According to Craig Annunziata, managing partner at Chicago law firm Fisher & Phillips, workplace probation is a habit that has no grounding in legislation or best practices. In other words, employers are independently deciding to being new hires with a probationary period, even without it being recommended, and in some cases against recommendations to not do so.

One of the main ways that probation can complicate employer-employee relations is through ambiguous and poorly defined language. For example, a probationary period may allow a company to terminate an employee for no reason, but in many cases it’s left unclear as to whether the terminated employee is still entitled to paychecks throughout the duration of his or her contracted probation. Additionally, the notion that probation allows an employer to dismiss a staff member at any time can also imply that once workers have passed their probationary periods, their jobs are more secure than they were before – a common misconception that many employers are happy to leave lie.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and such a potential misunderstanding may result in costly court battles that could even strip an employer’s at-will status.

For expert HR advice on how to handle probationary periods, or whether you should nix them altogether, PEO companies can provide a valuable resource.