Sharon Armstrong: The Essential Performance Review Handbook - Author interview

Entrepreneur, employee training and performance consultant, and human resources expert Sharon Armstrong was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about her valuable and thought provoking book The Essential Performance Review Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource For Any Manager or HR Professional.

Sharon Armstrong tackles the often misunderstood subject of employee performance reviews with a team based approach that transforms the process into a powerful management tool.

Thanks to Sharon Armstrong for her time, and for her comprehensive and informative responses to the questions. They are greatly appreciated.

What was the background to writing this book The Essential Performance Review Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource For Any Manager or HR Professional?

Sharon Armstrong: As a former HR director at a law firm and three associations, my responsibilities always included oversight of the performance management systems. I saw from firsthand experience that performance appraisals can be one of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of work life – for both supervisors and employees. My plan was for this book to help cut through the anxiety and make the process more productive and less unpleasant.

Why are performance appraisals so painful for everyone involved?

Sharon Armstrong: I think some managers don’t have ongoing workplace conversations throughout the cycle and therefore haven’t made notes of performance. The performance appraisal should be the culmination of all those discussions. Often employees are surprised at what they hear and feel duped that they weren’t given sufficient time to turn a behavior around. Those bad experiences for employees make them reluctant to have the next performance review. And managers don’t feel prepared or comfortable having the meetings.

What is wrong with the usual approach to performance appraisals?

Sharon Armstrong: The usual approach to performance appraisals is a quick one-way discussion and hand-off of a completed form. That approach can’t continue if you want performance discussions to be constructive, strengthen the organization and add value.

A better approach is to involve the employee as an active participant in the meeting and use the time for joint problem-solving and goal setting. And absolutely spend time recognizing the employee for his/her efforts throughout the year. Be specific.

Sharon Armstrong (photo left)

Do performance appraisals have to be so difficult for everyone, or is there a better way that can turn the appraisal into a positive for the supervisor, the employee, and the company?

Sharon Armstrong: I think organizations need to train managers and employees on their roles in the process then hold them accountable. If that happens, there will be benefits for all the stakeholders – the supervisor, the employee, and the company.

One of the issues that arises from performance reviews is that of employee compensation. How can compensation and incentives be worked into the appraisal in a positive way?

Sharon Armstrong: Pay for performance describes a broad range of pay practices. Repeated raises, while not meant to be such, might be considered entitlements if they are not linked to specific performance achievement. Pay for performance is intended to link a worker’s actions to his or her well-documented level of performance.

Many companies utilize a rigid rating approach for employees, believing it to be fair and unbiased. Is this really the case, and how can ratings be improved?

Sharon Armstrong: Ratings need to match the culture of the organization and be explained to all the players. For example, if the ‘middle’ rating is Meets Expectations that means that the employee is doing the job they were hired to do. Only if they exceed the expectations, should the rating reflect that. You want to avoid ‘rating creep’ – where everyone gets the highest ranking possible and the ratings lose all meaning.

When many employees enter the office for the appraisal, the meeting very often goes off the rails. What causes this problem and how can it be prevented?

Sharon Armstrong: There are many reasons why appraisals derail. Four reasons immediately come to mind. First there haven’t been mini-conversations on performance throughout the cycle. The result is often surprise and disappointment for the employee once they finally hear the manager’s assessment during the annual discussion.

Often times there isn’t a trusting relationship between the supervisor and the employee. Not everyone is committed to ‘active listening’ – a genuine effort to understand what both parties are saying. And lastly, no willingness to become actively engaged in owning the appraisal. This applies to both sides of the desk.

How should employers and employees be aware of the legal implications of a performance review?

Sharon Armstrong: Managing and evaluating employees has moved into a new legal arena. There are possible legal pitfalls that surround every performance discussion. Some of the pitfalls that can lead to legal complications include unclear communications, lack of concrete, specific goals, improper or lax record keeping, inaccurate or exaggerated performance ratings, and lack of follow up. Both supervisor and employee can make sure they are doing due diligence in these areas.

With different generations in the workplace, from Baby Boomers to Generation X to Millennials, how can the performance review process be kept relevant in changing times?

Sharon Armstrong: I really believe it’s more a matter of getting to know each and every employee and what motivates them. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their book, First Break All the Rules say ‘we don’t breathe the same psychological oxygen.’ I love that. It reminds us that there’s no cookie cutter approach to managing employees.

What is the first step employers and employees should take toward improving the performance review system in their company?

Sharon Armstrong: The success of any system depends heavily on senior-level support. Once you have buy-in from the CEO, work to align individual goals with company goals. Develop a system that achieves what you want your performance review system to achieve. Train managers and employees in the process. Hold everyone accountable for the success of the system. Then continuously monitor and improve it. By doing so, you keep it in the spotlight and a vital part of your culture.

What is next for Sharon Armstrong?

Sharon Armstrong: I think I’ve written my last book. Four books is enough already! From this point on, I hope to help my clients focus on this process in a healthy way and incorporate best practices in their organizations. That is enough to do and that would make me very happy!


My book review of The Essential Performance Review Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource For Any Manager or HR Professional by Sharon Armstrong.

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