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In the realm of employment relationships, distinguishing between several types of contracts is pivotal yet often overlooked. The disparities between employment contracts featuring probationary periods and those with fixed durations hold significance that merits clarity. While each form has its merits, they must be employed judiciously within their prescribed parameters.

Probation: Assessing Potential

Probationary periods serve as a strategic window for employers to gauge an employee's performance before confirming permanent employment. This phase demands employers to proactively evaluate, guide, train, and provide support to ascertain the employee's competency level. Probationary employees are treated with a degree of permanence, as employers invest substantial effort into their development.

Upon meeting obligations to support the employee's progress, employers typically hold a formal meeting at the probation's culmination to assess performance. This process parallels a formal performance hearing, granting the employee the opportunity to present their case with the assistance of a colleague or shop steward. If performance falls short of expectations, the employer may opt to extend the probationary period or terminate the employment.

Crucially, probationary employees possess the right to challenge their dismissal as unfair at the CCMA. Notably, the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal enables employers to justify terminations for "fewer compelling reasons" compared to permanent employees.

Fixed Term Agreements: Defining Durations

Contrasting probationary employment, fixed-term contracts do not equate to probation or permanent positions. A fixed-term contract naturally expires upon the occurrence of a predetermined event, such as a specific date or the culmination of a designated project. The automatic cessation of a fixed-term contract is regarded as mutually agreed termination, absolving it of dismissal connotations.

Nonetheless, fixed-term employees enjoy robust protections, and the application of such contracts is subject to limitations. If an employee earns below the earnings threshold (as currently set at R241,110 per annum), consecutive fixed-term contracts exceeding a combined three-month duration are restricted unless specific exceptions apply. Section 198B of the Labour Relations Act outlines such exceptions, including cases where the employer has less than ten employees, the fixed period relates to a distinct project, or the employee has attained the employer's standard retirement age.

From an employer's perspective, fixed-term contracts mitigate the risk of unfair dismissal claims. Given that cessation due to contract expiration is not classified as dismissal, unfair dismissal rights are typically not extended to the departing employee.

Choosing Wisely: Matching Contracts to Needs

Employers are well-advised to maintain template contracts for both fixed-term and probationary/permanent positions. The optimal choice hinges upon the nature of the role in question and the future trajectory of the business.

In conclusion, the judicious application of employment contracts is paramount. Understanding the nuanced differences between probationary periods and fixed-term agreements empowers employers to make informed decisions, ensuring compliance with labour law regulations while fostering mutually beneficial employment relationships.

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