Job probation can be a very sticky and scary business

Out of the Woods -- Nita Nettleton

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2001

Do you ever wake up screaming at your new desk around 9:30 on a Tuesday morning? Gripped by a panic of impending doom, you fear that at any moment your boss will notice that you're horribly unfit for your job. That happens to me, too. Every time I get a new job, I launch into it with confidence and the encouragement of my co-workers. Then, after the honeymoon is over, at about exactly four months, I come abruptly to the awareness that I am in fact not competent to do the work, failing miserably, and drowning in the surge of poorly done or undone work. It's about as comfortable a feeling as being stuck in a tar pit.

Some jobs are very seductive. They lure you in with the implication that any fool can do the work, you can learn as you go and it's easy to figure out. Then one day you get to the pile with all the real work in it, the stuff with past due dates and all the things you never knew to ask about. It's kind of nightmarish, really. Maybe I am a little sensitive. In my first office job many years ago, I replaced someone who was long gone and no person living knew how to run the machine that did the particular work. There were no manuals or any kind of instruction. And the work was piled up. I was instructed to look around, figure it out and let someone know when I was productive. Much time passed. I eventually got the work done, but never figured out all the machinery and still carry the mental scars.

There are workplaces where the team is so desperate for someone to do a particular raft of tasks, they will take any warm body and hope for the best. I count on that. Usually, the deck is clear when I arrive and it takes time to really mess it up. Then, slowly, people will call looking for something that I should have done by now or I run across reports from previous years that include things I haven't done for the current year. That's when I wonder how I got myself into this and why anyone would have thought I was a reasonable candidate for the job. What was I thinking? What were they thinking? I should be slinging hash in a greasy breakfast diner, something I know how to do and where my talent lies. Remember, this is at the end of the fourth month on the job.

Seasonal work is especially challenging because there isn't much time to recover from the what-was-I-thinking stage. If you don't come out of it quickly, it's over and you go away sure you blew your summer. But longer term work, or a permanent job (is that an oxymoron?), gives the tortured new employee time to come to terms with the work and move on to a better relationship with the job. By about six months, I have usually accepted that I will never be in control of the whole job and I'm OK with that. Now I understand why most probation periods are six months. If you live that long, there is a chance that you really can do the job.

I realize this is a depressing subject and I may have frightened the newly employed, so here are some tips to help you get through those first few awful months. First, bring cookies to the office regularly, go heavy on the chocolate and coconut. You need all the goodwill you can get. Next, quietly throw away everything in your drawers and shelves that seems to your new, fresh eyes to be superfluous to your job. Get it out of the way before you are forced to learn what it is and deal with it. You will be held harmless later because you didn't know better and because of the cookie thing. Finally, use your desktop calendar to be proactive and embrace the horror. Mark in Tar Pit Tuesday at the end of four months and a nice little vacation at six months to give yourself something to cling to.


Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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