An Examination of Certification in the HR Field

By Garry Kranz

Many in the human resources community were caught off-guard last summer by the Society for Human Resource Management’s surprise announcement to offer its own certification program. The messy public rift that followed with the HR Certification Institute — the selfsame certification partner SHRM founded in 1976 to create and administer the exams — has also reignited discussion over the quantifiable business value of certification programs.

The dust may be starting to settle as SHRM begins accepting its first applications for the new certification exams this month. But the debate over which certificate holds more value is just heating up as the 275,000-member trade association’s SHRM Certified Professional and SHRM Senior Certified Professional knocks heads with HRCI’s venerable Professional in Human Resources, Senior Professional in Human Resources and Global Professional in Human Resources certifications.

Not everyone in human resources is conflicted by the SHRM-HRCI split, and some even see it as a healthy competition that could generate more finely tuned best practices, ultimately strengthening HR’s hand as a strategic business partner.

Tori Dickey, a client support manager in Portland, Oregon, for HR outsourcing firm ADP, views the conflict through the lens of a profession undergoing dynamic change fueled by globalization, the rise of a multigenerational workforce and flatter matrix organizations.

Dickey was one of 1,700 beta testers to take SHRM’s pilot exam last year, though she’s no SHRM acolyte. A 10-year veteran at ADP, Dickey transitioned to human resources two years ago, a move she capped off by earning the PHR certification from HRCI in January 2014. In addition, Dickey has a Human Resources Information Professional certificate from the International Association for Human Resource Information Management.

She said SHRM’s program lowers the barrier to certification by eliminating eligibility requirements based on years of experience or status.

“I’m very excited that SHRM is making additional certification options available. I think it will make HR more inclusive,” Dickey said. “We have a number of professionals in nonexempt positions at ADP who now have the same opportunity to win recognition for their knowledge, skills and abilities as exempt professionals. It also gives them another way to obtain knowledge pay as part of ADP’s ongoing education.”

Dueling Certs: Does Anybody in HR Win?

Higher pay for HR professionals is one concrete way to assess the impact of HR certifications, although precise measurement of business impact remains elusive. A 2013 report by Payscale found that the likelihood of certification increases the higher up the HR career ladder someone climbs. It also concluded that nearly two-thirds of HR assistants got promoted within five years of obtaining a certification, compared with one-third who failed to move up without it.

Dickey’s support notwithstanding, SHRM seems to face an uphill battle to persuade other HR practitioners its new competency framework represents a meaningful step forward for the profession. Indeed, 67 percent of the 699 people surveyed by the Human Capital Media Advisory Group — the research arm of Workforce— said they have no intention of getting the new SHRM certification.

The new SHRM Competency Model identifies nine behaviors that supposedly indicate how successful an HR professional will be with its SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP designations. That’s in contrast to about a half-dozen certificates provided by HRCI, including the PHR, SPHR and GPHR certifications.

J. Robert Carr, SHRM’s senior vice president for marketing and external affairs, said SHRM has developed “the most rigorous competency model to date,” culled from survey data of 30,000 HR executives and focus groups in 33 countries. SHRM’s exams present hypothetical situations and a set of actions an HR professional could take; of course, only one choice is ultimately correct. Carr said SHRM’s exams are designed to separate highly effective HR practices from basic competence.

“One thing we heard over and over is that the established legacy exams — even ones SHRM has supported in the past — don’t test what HR people do in actual fact. We see the SHRM competency exams as a way to tease out the behaviors that make an outstanding HR professional,” rather than reward someone for passing a multiple-choice exam, Carr said.

No one was more surprised by SHRM’s announcement this summer than HRCI CEO Amy Schabacker Dufrane, who scoffs at the idea that SHRM is breaking new ground. Scenario-based questions have long been included on HRCI certification exams, she said, and the exam content is amended each year by more than 300 HRCI volunteers.

“Our certifications are built on a body of knowledge that has almost four decades of rigor behind it. Building certifications takes a lot of time and effort. It’s not something you can launch overnight,” Dufrane said.

The high-profile spat between the two bodies may be entertaining theater, but there are serious repercussions to the HR profession, said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who is also an HR consultant.

“It creates the perception that HR doesn’t have its act together. I personally have had people in other fields call me after reading about this and ask me, ‘What the hell’s going on in your profession?’ It’s embarrassing,” Sullivan said.

Even more embarrassing, he said, is the lack of objective metrics to prove the worth of HR certification, adding that evaluating a certification based on promotion or higher pay misses a more important question: Are companies with certified HR professionals actually gaining market share or higher revenue as a direct result?

“Having letters behind your name doesn’t mean you learned the right things. The question has to be: ‘Does getting a certification move the needle?’ And there’s no evidence that’s the case. Certification should be a data-driven area, but nobody — not SHRM and not HRCI — has those numbers,” Sullivan said.

The Evidence Is In — Anecdotally

Certificate holders roundly disagree with such an assessment, claiming that certification demonstrates mastery of a universally accepted body of knowledge and best practices.

“It’s benefited me in a lot of ways, especially now that I do more business internationally,” said Angeles Cordova, a senior vice president of global HR transformation at financial services firm Citigroup Inc., who is also an HRCI board member.

Cordova already had an MBA when she pursued the PHR certification through HRCI in 2008. She said the additional credential served to round out her formal academic training.

Certification exams CHART December 2014

“Even though I haven’t been an HR generalist for a while, I remember that I very frequently referred back to the learning modules and the certification material. I can think of lots of questions I was able to clarify in relation to compensation and employee relations. I made it a practice to have an open-door policy, so when people came by with questions, we would pull out the material and go through it as needed,” Cordova said.

And, she adds: “I never ruled out the fact that I may not have gotten the full perspective of HR knowledge and competencies with my formal university studies alone.”

O. David Jackson, a director of human resources at Microsoft Corp. who is also on the board at HRCI, likens an HR certification to the credentials obtained by a doctor or lawyer. He said being certified is becoming a baseline expectation for anyone with career aspirations in human resources.

“It shows that you have a continuing dedication to the art and science of the profession,” said Jackson, who achieved HRCI’s PHR certificate in 2005 and has recertified twice. “It also gives you a way to calibrate your skill set and confidence you can execute, based on what you’ve learned.”

Jackson is part of a planning team that examines Microsoft’s technical road map in the context of shifting global markets and claims the designation enables him to match theory with practical application.

“One of the points I’ve been making to the team is that the technical shifts we envision as a company have to be complemented by talent and cultural shifts as well. Understanding talent and culture have strategic importance in enabling the business to execute on its future plans,” Jackson said.

Multiple-Choice Certs

SHRM’s Carr said more than 10,000 people signed up for the pilot exams following its launch. The goal initially was to limit the test to 1,000 people, but SHRM twice expanded the test pool before finally capping participation at 1,700. “That was almost twice as many as we wanted to have, and even after we cut it off, we still had people asking, ‘How can I take a pilot?’ ” Carr said.

HRCI certificate holders aren’t sure what to make of SHRM’s plan. Jackson at Microsoft said he had not fully studied the details of SHRM’s proposed exams and wasn’t prepared to comment. But he acknowledged the talk of certification, even in the context of a dispute, could prove to be a net positive for the HR field overall.

“Anytime a profession seeks to elevate itself through the creation of standards, I think it clearly validates why this type of credential is important,” Jackson said.

SHRM meanwhile has announced its first test window for the new exams, which runs from May 1 through July 17. That has many certification proponents like Dickey eager to participate. “I have great respect for the PHR I earned through HRCI, but I’m a ‘more is better’ type of individual. Having these different certifications available helps me have more broad and diverse exposure, which ultimately will allow me to be more successful.”

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor. Reprinted from Workforce.com

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