Exploring HR Certifications

A year after the big split between SHRM and HRCI, we take a look at the growing landscape of HR-certification options.

Monday, April 4, 2016
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If this were a sports story, we'd start with the stats: Human Resource Certification Institute, 142,000 and Society for Human Resource Management, 92,000.

 But there's a lot more to the story than about how many HR folks hold credentials from the two organizations that previously had collaborated on certification for 40 years.

After the contentious split between SHRM and HRCI two years ago, HR professionals and their organizations began last year assessing both approaches to decide whether to pursue the SHRM designation in addition to -- or instead of -- the HRCI credentials.

"I think folks are perplexed over the choice between two different certifications," says Amy Wangerin, SPHR, director of HR training for MRA, a Waukesha, Wis., management association. Like many others, MRA decided to offer prep courses for both certifications and has since been busy fielding questions.

"We continue to say you are on the right path because you're pursuing [an] HR certification, which is the goal," notes Wangerin. She advises HR professionals to review the certification criteria and programs, and talk to peers and managers to make an informed choice. "Both are really good choices as long as you have your eyes on the HR-certification prize."

About 80,000 HR professionals hold HRCI's early-career designation of PHR (Professional in Human Resources), 55,000 have earned an SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources), and another 7,000 hold global, international, and California-specific certifications. The recertification rate for 2015 was 81 percent, says HRCI's Chief Executive Officer Amy Dufrane, Ed.D., SPHR, CAE (Certified Association Executive).

Last year, SHRM awarded 92,000 people either a Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) or a Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) designation. The vast majority -- about 83,000 -- were HRCI-certified professionals or holders of other certifications such as the Canadian CHRP (Certified Human Resources Professional) and the UK's CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development). They took an online tutorial about SHRM's body of competency and knowledge to qualify for the new credentials. An additional 9,000 passed the May-July 2015 and December 2015-February 2016 exams.

According to Brian Dickson, senior vice president of professional development and strategic partnerships for SHRM, his agency's current-HR-certification-to-SHRM-certification pathway program created a "competency self-portrait” for planning professional development and presented the exam's new assessment approaches.

He also reports that SHRM exceeded all of its first-year-out goals.

"The biggest goal and objective is to continue to elevate the HR profession," he says, "to refocus the profession on behavioral competencies that really drive success in the workplace, and continue to help our members improve their capabilities so that they can fulfill their full potential as HR professionals."

SHRM also has been busy implementing its certification program and courting employers such as the Mayo Clinic, Tulane University, Fairchild Semiconductor and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, among others, with its exam-training program that models nine behavioral and technical competencies. Plus, SHRM has begun the multi-year process of qualifying for professional accreditation through either the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and/or the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). HRCI already holds NCCA accreditation for its certification programs.

Meanwhile, HRCI developed its new entry-level Associate Professional in Human Resources (aPHR), conducted research and published its own body-of-knowledge guide for its professional-development path. In January, it allied itself with Top Employers Institute, a 25-year-old Netherlands-based organization that certifies organizations, rather than HR professionals themselves, based on their HR best practices and policies; the institute is now expanding from a global market into the United States.

Dufrane says HRCI's collaborative study with the Top Employers Institute showed three trends: that companies with more than five HRCI-certified professionals also had a much stronger employer-reputation rating (3.46 on a scale of 1 to 5) on than an organization with fewer than 5 (3.2), that such companies had 95-percent-better stock-price performance over five years in comparison to the 38-percent results for others, and that these companies saw about a 33-percent increase in revenue growth over five years, compared to 8 percent for others.

David Plink, Top Employers Institute's chief executive officer, cautions that a direct connection between individual or organizational certification and business results is not yet possible. "As much as we would love to, we can't pose a causal relationship," he notes, adding that the numbers do indicate a "self-fulfilling prophecy that companies that are more successful are willing to invest more in their people."

Dufrane says the aPHR program grew out of a collaboration to help U.S. Army HR professionals build the skills and knowledge needed for moving into civilian jobs, but has been promoted to colleges and their graduates as a way to start on the professional-certification path.

HRCI also spent time surveying about 20,000 PHR/SPR certificants, says Dufrane. "We learned that [certified individuals] clearly understand their profession better, get promoted much more quickly, make more money, their supervisors see the difference between an individual who is certified by HRCI and who is not, and are much happier in their jobs and much more confident in what they're doing and what they're supporting."

As for why SHRM ventured into the certification business, Dickson says that, over the years, the agency has increasingly heard from employers that there was not a strong enough link between certification and driving results in the workplace. SHRM tapped 100 focus groups in more than 35 countries to get a better understanding of what works in the workplace and then incorporated the findings into the certification process.

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The rub, he says, is that "more and more is demanded of HR" and business leaders are saying that HR professionals have to have better business acumen, be more comfortable with statistics, be better internal consultants, and manage complex stakeholder relationships, as well as effectively manage an organization's talent pool.

Others have noted that HRCI has been the industry standard for so long that SHRM may find it challenging to topple it from its perch. In any event, some observers say it still feels like a divided community.

"It's hard to say which is better," says William Hodson, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, and the HR advisory director for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who adds that the clinic's HR job descriptions currently ask for either HRCI or SHRM certification. "The dilemma will be, three years out, which should we go with?"

Hodson says the Mayo Clinic wanted to bring consistency of skills to a diverse group of HR professionals at multiple locations and train them to go beyond transactional-based responsibilities to become more strategic, and was impressed by SHRM's body of competency and knowledge approach, which mirrors Mayo's own organizational values.

"We were also impressed with the way the exam and prep course is being done," he says. "It appears that the SHRM tool is focused strongly on the business acumen and if we're to be a successful partner with our [Mayo Clinic] business leaders all around the country, we have got to be on the game with that."

Wangerin says she really appreciates the competition in this.

"The competition has been good," she adds, "because it has put certification in the spotlight. I think it is advancing the profession. Because HR professionals impact the people side of business, it is important for them to lead the business. Certification helps them determine that path a little bit better."

But, she adds, "we are all kind of navigating through it together."

(Editor's note: The originally published story listed HRCI as having 135,000 certificants -- that is the total for those who hold PHR and SPHR certifications but an additional 7,000 hold global, international, and California-specific certifications. The reference to SHRM’s total certificants includes the May-July 2015 and the December 2015-February 2016 exam windows. Also, SHRM’s pathway program included those who held Canadian and UK HR certifications, as well as HRCI certifications.)

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