What is an orientation period?

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Q: I have accepted a new role with a company in the Boston area.  The recruiter mentioned there was an orientation period.  I am not even sure what that is.  Is it a trial period?

A: Many companies have an orientation period, and some employers even mention it in their offer letters or handbook.  Sometimes it might also be referred to as a probationary period, training period or introductory period.  Usually this period of time is 90 days, but you are wise to ask because it varies.  There is no exact definition, or at least that I am aware of.  Most of our clients use a 90-day period as the orientation period but we have a few that use 30 or 60 days instead.   It is a period of time, where an employer is often assessing whether the new employee can meet the performance requirements of the role.  An employee, probably less formally, is also ensuring that the role is as they expected.  Is the role what you expected?  Are the job responsibilities what you anticipated?

This period of time sometimes, but not always, may coincide with the benefits waiting period.  Some companies link the two period of time.  If linked, their orientation period and their waiting period for the effective date of medical benefits both start on the same day.

Most companies don’t use the term “probationary period” anymore.  It is viewed by some as dated language.  Some legal experts view the term negatively in an at-will workforce.  At-will means that the employee or the employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason.  Some view the concept of a probationary period as weakening the at-will relationship, since some employee may feel that they can not be terminated after that period of time has expired.  This is untrue, but some legal experts feel like it sends that message to employees that they cannot be terminated. Despite this misconception, it’s essential to understand what is considered wrongful discharge to avoid legal pitfalls.

Assuming you are in at-will employment relationship, your employer can sever the relationship at any time for any reason.  However, the same holds true for you; you can decide to leave the company at any time.  You are not required to give a reason.  You are not even required to give notice, although most companies will expect that you will give notice of your intent to leave.  I would suggest you ask how long the orientation period lasts, but my expectation would be 90 days.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.