As an expert on creating and delivering training, I believe it's the responsibility of a trainer to find a way to connect with his/her learners, not the other way around. And, as someone who's been teaching management classes and coaching leaders of all kinds for more than 20 years, I believe the same is true when placing an employee on probation: It's the manager's job to find a way to help the problem employee.
Before I get into this, let me say that most managers have never received adequate training for how to be a manager. Too often a person gets promoted, has a few magic words sprinkled in his/her direction, and – voila – an instant manager!
This should not be the case. However, if that describes you, take what I say here purely as instructional and not as a critique. I'd also recommend getting some solid management training as soon as possible.
That said, if you're putting someone on probation, it should be done only for violating clearly defined performance standards. Anything else is purely subjective and at risk of critique from the Department of Labor (and rightfully so). If you do have clear standards but they are only in your head and not presented to an employee in a way that he or she understands, then you're still not acting fairly as a manager.
A key point here is "clearly defined." For example, if you want a person to manufacture 12 widgets an hour but the person is only making eight, then saying "you need to increase your number of widgets per hour" is not enough. You must give the person a clearly defined target.
Then, after stipulating a specific target, you should work with the employee to see where he or she could speed things up. What knowledge, skills, or attitudes are missing? What is preventing the person from performing up to expectations?
It is not the employee's job to magically know what's missing. A manager must work with the individual to identify roadblocks, help remove them, and educate as necessary. In my professional opinion, a manager who won't do this has either not learned how to be a manager or is abdicating his/her responsibilities. One might even use the word "lazy."
Consider what happened to one man who was struggling in a new job that required a lot of field work at customer sites. He struggled getting the hang of things and was working almost 80 hours per week. Before long his direct supervisor came over to him and said, "you're working too much overtime. There - I talked to you."
As the supervisor walked away, the man instantly knew that someone higher in the organization had told the supervisor to "have a talk" with him.
That was horrible management. In fact, it's an example of management failure.
Let's assume you're not that bad. Let's say you've told someone what they need to do, but the person still isn't performing up to expectations. A friend of mine was recently fired under these conditions. His job performance was fine in two of three areas, and even though his boss told him what was needed in that third area, he struggled because it wasn't a natural skill for him. In the end, he was terminated because management threw up their hands and gave up working with him.
In my opinion, management fell short there, too. First, they never helped my friend identify or get around specific road blocks. Telling him what to do and helping him find ways to do it are two different things. Second, they could have restructured job descriptions, allowing my friend to continue producing in his two areas of strength, but swapping some job responsibilities in that third area with someone who did those things well.
Research backs up this last suggestion. It's been proven that when people put extensive effort into shoring up a glaring weakness, they may see a small boost in their area of weakness. However, the effort required to get that small boost steals excessive energy from the person's areas of natural strength - often resulting in a dramatic loss of productivity.
Finally, if you're going to put someone on probation, document everything. Make sure details of expectations and progress are reviewed in writing by both you and the employee. You should set up regular accountability meetings to measure progress and explore strategies for getting around stubborn obstacles. At each meeting, schedule follow-up appointments with clear expectations (and potential consequences) established and understood.
This method is fair to both parties, it keeps the Department of Labor happy, and if the employee is not making satisfactory progress, chances are he or she knows it and termination will not come as a surprise.
Being a manager carries a lot of responsibilities, and putting someone on probation is a huge deal. Believe it or not, the outcome of that choice is more on your shoulders than you may realize.