Probation: How to Survive – Part One

Probation: How to Survive – Part One

Almost every company in Japan has a probation period for new mid-career employees (versus college grads, who are tolerated more). For experienced people, this period represents nothing more than an opportunity to weigh up the new employer and decide whether to stay or not. However, for those new to the country and its culture, or switching careers, the probation period is extremely stressful and full of uncertainty - and the threat is very real. In the new reality of employment in Japan, poor performance will usually result in your dismissal within the first 3 months.

It is only natural that your manager or CEO will be evaluating your performance during this initial period and weighing up your ability to contribute to his/her team in the future. However, some job categories are much more performance sensitive during probation than others. For example, in the recruiting business, we see job terminations most frequently in the areas of sales, middle management, troubleshooting roles, and technical positions. As I have mentioned in previous articles it is entirely legal for a manager to let you go basically without cause during the probation period, and in Japan over the last couple of years, companies have taken full advantage of the probation period as full test run, not as a polite entree into a full-time position as was the case years ago.

Most companies have a system for monitoring and dealing with problems cropping up with employees during their probation. It's basically a "3 strikes and you're out" system, where your early shortfalls will result in 2-3 warnings over a period of 1-3 months, and on the 3rd warning, you can expect dismissal. Of course different problems result in levels of severity. For example, capability issues may result in a warning but also some extra training. You can help things along by being quick to ask for training if you need it – no manager can fire you with a clear conscience if they know they haven't given you the training you need.

Next, job commitment get warnings and possibly some counseling. But you'd better clean up your act fast, or provide an explanation for the tardy attendance or frequent sick days. Japanese bosses in particular are not very tolerant of new staff who can't get their lives organized.

But by far the biggest reason for a swift and severe dismissal is personality conflicts. Japanese work environments place a huge amount of emphasis on harmony within the group. This of course usually means that the environment is somewhat patriarchal, or that someone with a strong personality is running the group from behind the scenes (such as the female administration manager). Arguing and out-of-turn opinions are not welcome, as are challenges to other managers and superiors. If you're naturally quick with your opinions, give it second thought during your probation. Upsetting a superior or secretely powerful colleague during probation is a sure way to get fired.

For the record, and as I've written in earlier columns, during your probation period, you can be let go with immediate notice in the first 14 days, then with one month's salary anytime thereafter until the probation ends. If your boss is not sure of your suitability for the company, he/she can also have your probation extended from the traditional 3 months to 6 months or so. You would probably have cause to complain of unfair treatment if your probation extended longer than this.

Next week, I will outline some tips for how to survive your probation period!