How to Sail Through Probation Without a Glitch

By Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job”; speaker on career issues; Twitter: @Lilymwhiteman

Congratulations! You’ve just accepted a coveted federal job. Time to celebrate. But you might want to wait to pull out all the stops until after you finish probation—when your job security will substantially increase.

After all, throughout your probation, you will have about as much job security as private sector employees who may be fired at almost any time for almost any reason; that is much less job security than you will have after probation, when you will enjoy a bevy of protections.

But unfortunately, many new hires at federal agencies are never informed of their probation or its implications, according to a report by the Merit Systems Protection Board and the observations of many longtime feds, including me.

But the good news is that the overwhelming majority of feds do complete probation without a hitch. Nevertheless, too many new hires don’t know about or don’t understand probation until their jobs are literally on the line. So to help, here are some basics about probation.

Probation Basics

Most new hires in competitive service agencies must complete one year of probation, and those in excepted service agencies must complete two years of probation. (To learn more about the competitive vs. excepted service, Google these terms.) If you’re a new fed, be sure to identify the end date of your probation.

During probation, feds can be fired much more easily and quickly than post-probationary feds. Plus, they have fewer appeal rights than post-probationary feds, and are note very likely to win the appeals they do file.

The strictness of criteria for passing probation varies by agency, office and supervisor. But even if your particular environment has a lenient probationary history, don’t take anything for granted: Consider your entire probationary period an extended job interview.

As a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees said, “The probation is not the time for nonessential activities such as professional development activities; It’s the time to focus on keeping your job.” Some ways to do so:


Stay on Your Boss’s Good Side

  • It’s easier to make a good first impression than to correct a bad one. Try to burnish a good first impression into your boss’s brain by taking on an important, accomplishable project and acing it during your first few weeks on the job.
  • When you start your new job, ask your new boss who you will be working with most closely and then introduce yourself to those people. Also, familiarize yourself with relevant organizational charts.
  • Make your boss’s goals your goals, and try to suggest new, innovative ways to advance those goals.
  • Go the extra mile whenever possible, even if you slack off after probation. Be punctual, work extra hours if necessary and check and recheck your work.
  • It’s an axiom of life that if you make life easier for someone, they’ll probably like you; if you make life harder for them, they probably won’t. Make your boss’s life easier by working doggedly to solve some of the office’s problems without creating new ones, if possibl
  • Be agreeable: Probation is not a strategic time to get in touch with your inner revolutionary and to speak truth to power.
  • Try to meet deadlines. But if you anticipate missing one, warn your boss of the impending problem and start troubleshooting ASAP. And if you’re involved in snags that your boss will inevitably learn about from others, tell him/her about them yourself. Why? For the same reasons that defense lawyers present the weaknesses of their own cases to juries before prosecutors have a chance to do so: to establish credibility, spin bad news as favorably as possible, explain mitigating circumstances, and steal the thunder of foes.
  • Regularly update on your boss on your progress on projects via face-to-face meetings, if possible, and via emailed updates. Use formal reviews to gauge your standing. But don’t mistake even an excellent annual as a guarantee of probationary success. If you receive an egregiously unfair review, consult your union representative.
  • Find ways to use your special knowledge. For example, if you’re the only social media expert on your staff, offer to kick off your office’s social media program. And, if you’ve previously worked at an organization that your current employer would like to work with more closely, offer to use your key contacts to help.
  • Don’t disparage your boss or office to anyone in your agency during probation.
  • Don’t apply for any new jobs within your agency without your boss’s blessing during probation.


Cultivate Other Relationships

  • Under some circumstances, other officials besides your boss may help decide your probationary fate, particularly if your boss leaves his/her supervisory position for any reason during your probation. So try to cultivate good relationships with as many other managers and colleagues as possible.
  • Impress managers in your office by volunteering for their projects when they’re short-staffed, if your boss allows you to do so. Or if a colleague or manager is obviously overloaded, volunteer to help him, if possible, even if doing so involves assuming menial tasks for a short time. And if your office is short-staffed because of attrition, vacations or other reasons, help support appropriate managers.
  • Seize opportunities to interact with the front office—because that is usually where the power, big budgets and therefore the best promotional opportunities are centralized.
  • Ask managers to email their praise of your work to your boss and to c.c. you on such emails. Keep records of your emailed and oral praise, and maintain a running list of your achievements. These documents are important because: 1) You should submit them to your boss before your annual evaluation to remind him/her of your productivity; 2) You may include quotes from them on your resume—so they may help you land your next job.

Stay Positive

  • Act like you feel privileged to work at your new job, even if you had to forgo a free Hawaiian vacation to take it.
  • Periodically mention to your boss your positive experiences on your new job: why your projects are interesting and important, why you’re enjoying working with your colleagues; and new things you’re learning.
  • Be friendly and courteous to everyone, including subordinates.
  • Assimilate into your office’s culture. No grumbling even if you must do your own Xeroxing!
  • If possible, find a trusted adviser who will give you the inside scoop about what works and what doesn’t in your new office and about previous probationary outcomes.
  • Strictly obey all regulations, such as those addressing timekeeping, travel, credit cards and computer use. FYI: Lying about your time and attendance is one of the easiest ways to get fired even after probation.

Trouble Brewing?

In the unlikely event that you sense that you might be fired, consult your union and a lawyer who specializes in federal employment law.

Celebrate Your Success

Hooray—you made it! If you stay in the same line of work in the federal government, you won’t be subjected to 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 complete 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.

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This is definitely helpful. I just landed a IRS veterans preference career. I have a year probationary period. Great outline and extra tidbits!

Counter Intell

“you won’t be subjected to probation for new hires again, even if you switch agencies.” is not entirely correct. If an agency stipulates during the interview process, advertises the position as such, and makes you sign documentation to that effect, even if you come from another agency years of tenured experience, they will NOT waive a 1-yr prob. period. Just sayin’.