The British government is currently debating whether to increase the qualifying period for unfair dismissal from one to two years, believing the measure will improve flexibility and encourage small and medium enterprises to create jobs. The proposed measure is part of their government's "new economic dynamism".
But will it achieve this or simply make it easier for employers to dismiss employees? For most of its existence, the legislation did in fact specify two years, until Tony Blair took office and reduced the qualifying period to one year. The divergence highlights the disparate policies of the two governments.
In Ireland the qualifying period for unfair dismissal is one year, save where dismissal occasions by virtue of an employee's pregnancy. The Act in Ireland, as in the UK, has its origins from a European Directive. The legislation expressly precludes probationary periods that exceed 12 months. With advanced methods of recruitment and evaluation methods allied with a more educated workforce, is a period in excess of 12 months required for the assessment of employee suitability? Perhaps it would be in NASA or shadowing a brain surgeon for suitability to go it alone.
A probationary period in essence gives an employer the flexibility and statutory ambit to evaluate an employee for up to a maximum of just less than 12 months (the evaluation period) - note the "just less than". If an employee is not suitable to the position or indeed the organisation, then an employer can dismiss the employee fairly so long as the correct notice period is provided, and equality legalisation is not breached. That is a significant period to be exposed to an individual; one would have a very good gauge of an employee's ability and performance.
Furthermore employers are increasingly defining performance goals for employees and assessing and measuring the satisfaction of these in mid-year and year-end performance reviews.
The logic is simple, set goals and expectations for employees, define deliverables and give employees ownership of the execution. Next, manage and evaluate employees throughout the period but ultimately assess each employee against expectations. Employees will exceed, meet or not meet these expectations.
It is unlikely that such a change in the qualifying period would ever happen in Ireland, so for now the probationary period not exceeding 12 months is here to stay. Remember this simple maxim, reward performers, design improvement plans for those who can achieve more and talk to your lawyers about non-performers. Seriously, we don't bite.
Oisín Scollard is a barrister and consultant with employment law firm, www.employmentclinic.ie