Tips for successfully completing public sector probation

There is plenty of online advice about ‘surviving’ probation. Probation refers to a fixed period of time during which you prove you are capable of performing the role you applied for.

Much of this advice is usefully generic, and tends to target the private sector.

The public sector, primarily state, territory and federal government, has additional requirements. These may be overlooked by some people, such as those transitioning from the private sector.

Regardless of which sector, it is useful to read the Fair Work Ombudsman’s material on probation.

Rather than simply ‘survive’ probation, a better career choice is to successfully complete probation. One good reason to aim for success rather than survival is that for some roles, such as some graduate programs, you will have to apply for a role at the end of the program.

To maximise your chances of successfully completing your government role probation, here is a list of actions to consider, split between pre-start, first weeks, and the months ahead.

Some details to understand about probation
  • It is a critical part of the recruitment and selection process.
  • Action to end employment during probation is a legitimate action.
  • There is no legislative requirement in the APS for the length of the probation period. Most probation periods are three months.
  • The probation period should include some induction and assessment.
  • For the APS, a decision needs to be made before the end of probation about whether a person is deemed suitable for appointment.
  • Probation is a managed process, meaning a person’s manager needs to establish clear expectations about what work a person does, how it will be judged, and conduct regular reviews with the person, giving feedback on progress. This material needs to be recorded.
Pre-start tips
  • Read the public service’s requirements on probation. For example, the APSC provides information on probation, as do state governments.
  • Know your conditions of employment: these should be set out in your letter of appointment.
  • Read the enterprise agreement, usually found on the website.
  • Find out what the dress code is.
  • If you have already planned holidays, mention this when discussing any offer of employment.
First weeks
  • Be punctual. Arrive at work when expected and turn up to meetings on time. ‘On time’ doesn’t mean three minutes after the designated start time, and certainly not ten minutes. On time means arriving so the meeting can start at the designated time. For example, if it’s a 3.00pm meeting, arrive at least 2.57 pm. Apologise if you’re late.
  • Don’t be a clock watcher making sure you take your full lunch break, leaving right on knock-off time, and counting every flex time accrued.
  • Meet with your manager/supervisor to establish clear expectations, and learn what you are required to do as well as how your performance will be assessed.
  • Learn and abide by the rules for computer use, social media, in-house stores.
  • Meet key people in your team. Attend induction and any training offered. Learn as much as you can.
The months ahead
  • Meet regularly with your manager/supervisor to gain feedback on your progress, your strengths and weaknesses, what you can do to improve. Keep records and gain copies of meeting reports.
  • Continue to observe the behaviour of others to find out about culture and acceptable behaviour, get to know your colleagues, be polite and friendly, and show your ability to work as part of a team. Don’t gossip, criticise or pass judgement. These people may be asked about your performance.
  • Ask questions politely, be eager to learn,
  • Recognise you don’t know everything, and can make mistakes. If you do make a mistake, talk to your supervisor.
  • Even if the way things are done doesn’t make sense and you think you know a better way, find out first why it is done the way it is. It could be there are government requirements that you don’t know about.
  • Learn about legislation, policies, procedures, and how government works.
  • Advise your manager/supervisor if you are feeling ill. Determine which is the most courteous method to use if you are not going to work. [phone, email, SMS]
  • Be flexible. Your role can change quickly so don’t be wedded to your job description.
  • Keep a log book of what you do each week, noting knowledge gained, skills applied or learnt, problems solved, people you met. This material will be useful for review discussions and if you need to apply for another role.
  • Find out if any capability frameworks are used. For example, in the APS, The Integrated Leadership System is still in used. Build your skills with these capabilities in mind.
  • Look after your wellbeing. Long hours, demanding work, and stress can contribute to burnout.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.