Surviving probation, part 1


Most new hires in competitive service agencies must complete one year of probation and most new hires in excepted service agencies must complete two years of probation. New hires can usually be fired more easily and quickly while on probation than after, and they have fewer appeal rights than post-probationary employees.

The overwhelming majority of new hires complete probation successfully. But because of the high stakes of probation, it’s important for probationers and their supervisors to understand relevant rules. This has not always been the case, according to “The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity” by the Merit Systems Protection Board. And the situation has not significantly improved since this report was published in 2005.

Advice for new hires:

Your supervisor, human resources office and offer letter should inform you of your probation, its length and implications. But they won’t necessarily do so. So, if necessary, research this information and identify the end date of your probation.

Understand that during probation, your job security is more like that of a private-sector employee who can be fired at any time for almost any reason (besides partisan politics, marital status or overt discrimination) than that of a post-probationary employee who benefits from a bevy of protections.

If you make life easier for someone, they’ll probably like you; if you make life harder for them, they probably won’t. Apply this principle to your relationship with your boss, which will probably be pivotal to your probationary success. Win him or her over by working doggedly to solve some of the office’s problems without creating new ones.

It’s easier to make a good first impression than to correct a bad one. Burnish a good first impression into your boss’ brain by taking on an important, accomplishable project and finishing it efficiently during your first few weeks on the job. Go above and beyond the call of duty whenever possible, even if you must slack off after probation. Be punctual, work extra hours if necessary, proofread your work and meet deadlines.

If you anticipate missing a deadline, don’t blindside your boss. Instead, warn him or her of the impending problem and start troubleshooting. And if you’re involved in snags that your boss will inevitably learn about from others, tell him or her about them yourself. Why? For the same reasons that defense attorneys present the weaknesses of their own cases to the jury before the prosecution does: to establish credibility, put bad news in the best possible light, explain mitigating circumstances, and steal the thunder of those who gleefully harp on others’ misfortune.

Give your boss regular updates on your projects, even if he or she doesn’t ask. Use formal reviews to gauge your standing. But understand that, according to the rules, even an excellent annual review will not guarantee your probationary success.

Strictly obey all regulations, such as those addressing timekeeping, travel, federal credit cards and the use of federal

Be agreeable. This is not a strategic time to get in touch with your inner revolutionary and speak truth to power.

Act like you feel privileged to work at your new job, even if you had to forgo a free Hawaiian vacation to take it. Be friendly and courteous to everyone, including subordinates.

Assimilate into your office’s culture. For example, no hissy fits or even grumbling if you must do your own photocopying.

If possible, find trusted advisers who will give you the inside scoop about what works and what doesn’t in your new office and about previous probationary outcomes.

If you sense that you might be fired, consult an attorney who specializes in federal employment law.

Celebrate when you complete your probation. If you stay in the same line of work, you won’t have to do probation for new hires again, even if you switch agencies. But some management and supervisory jobs require probation, and all new senior executive service employees must do one year of probation. But in most cases, wiping out from those types of probations wouldn’t get you fired — only returned to the level of your previous job.

Continue to Part Two

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job” and a trainer on career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Email your career questions to and view her blog at blogs.federaltimes.


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