Certification Enhances HR's Credibility

May 1, 1999
Scan the classified ads, and you'll notice a significant trend. Employers increasingly are requiring human resource directors and managers to be certified, according to Sandra K. Deming, an HR consultant in El Segundo, California.

Through the Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA), Deming attended an eight-week study program once a week that prepared her for the Senior Professional Human Resource (SPHR) examination. A measurement of competency, growth and achievement, the Professional HR (PHR) and SPHR designations signify that an individual has mastered the basic human resources body of knowledge: management practices, general employment practices, staffing, HR development, compensation and benefits, employee and labor relations, and health, safety and security. "By taking the exam and continuing to recertify, I ve kept my skills at the leading edge," says Deming, who took her first test in 1992. "I felt it would offer me HR credentials right off the bat."

The Human Resource Certificate Institute (HRCI), run by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), maintains the nationally recognized standards set by those who work in the human resources profession.

Clearly, today s business world demands a higher level of HR and business competency than ever before. Without advancing your career through certification and eventually even a master s degree in business administration, organizational development, human resources management or leadership, your chances of being taken seriously as a business partner are nil.

For example, in order to be considered a strategic player today, you ll need to understand how HR initiatives impact business results. This requires a basic knowledge of finance and general business management. Without these competencies, it s difficult to operate at a higher organizational level, at which quantifying HR results is a requirement and speaking the same language as other senior managers is expected. Let s be honest -- calculating the return on outsourcing the recruitment function requires a lot more knowledge than figuring out the cost of the company holiday party.

But whether or not you actually decide to pursue a master s degree, HR competencies have changed. You should at least consider obtaining your professional or senior human resource certification. Says Dave Ulrich, professor at the School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and author of Human Resource Champions (Harvard Business School Press, 1997): "Certification is a marvelous opportunity for entrants to the HR profession. It assures them that they are grounded in the basic knowledge and facts for making HR successful. In addition, HR professionals must learn the business. How they learn is open to debate, but acquiring an MBA is one good way. Without understanding business, HR professionals will continue to focus on activity, not outcomes."

To be sure, today s business world is a new playing field for HR. Expectations are high and business issues are complex a new and evolving set of sophisticated skills are required to keep HR on top of their game.

In fact, you may have already recognized the need to boost your base of knowledge. According to HRCI, there are 33,000 HR professionals who currently hold a PHR or SPHR certification. Approximately 65 percent of HRCI s professionals have obtained the former, 35 percent, the latter.

Also, a Workforce survey conducted among our readers in 1998 revealed that 56 percent of respondents had obtained one form of HR certification. And 67 percent said they believed HR certification gives human resources professionals more credibility among corporate peers and other senior managers. Nevertheless, 96 percent also said their current employer didn t require certification in order to be hired, perhaps explaining why the numbers of those certified aren t higher. According to some HR professionals, these are surprising statistics that appear to be changing.

In another survey conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) in 1997-98, accreditations have been earned by 37 percent of 286 HR executives (HR directors or vice presidents) surveyed. The SPHR held by 17 percent of those surveyed remains the most common certificate among HR officers. Eleven percent of the BNA s Personnel Policies Forum members have obtained their PHR designation.

A major change in HRCI eligibility requirements.
Effective January 1 of this year, HRCI announced a major change in the eligibility requirements for its two certifications: the PHR designation, which focuses primarily on day-to-day administrative and technical aspects of human resources; and the SPHR designation, which is a more strategic and policy level exam. According to Jill McDermott of HRCI, candidates for either the PHR or SPHR exams now need only two years of exempt HR-level experience. Before, an individual seeking the PHR certification needed four years of exempt HR level experience. And individuals seeking the SPHR certification were required to have eight years of exempt HR experience.

The change, she says, is in response to the explosive growth in the human resources profession and the growing trend of placing non-HR executives with extensive general management experience into senior HR positions. "We ve received a lot of feedback that [employers] want people with more practical experience," McDermott says. For instance, some business professionals outside HR often have experience related to mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, staff development, financial analysis or performance improvement programs expertise that is highly valued in HR s new role.

"Prior to this year, individuals were able to substitute education for part of the experience requirement," McDermott says. For example, an individual could substitute two years of experience with a bachelor s degree and three years with a master s degree. "Now, education can t be substituted for experience," says McDermott, which makes a minimum of two years experience in HR mandatory for certification.

HRCI does not endorse or recommend a particular book or course of study to prepare for the exams. Individuals are thus advised to select a method of study that fits their personal situation. However, SHRM and other organizations, such as PIHRA, offer preparation materials for the exam. The four-hour exam covers the basic disciplines of HR described above.

Exams are offered two times per year (May and December) in major cities around the country. The exam also is offered at the SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition. Assessment Systems Inc. (ASI), based in Philadelphia, administers the HRCI exam at a cost of $285 for SHRM members and $325 for non-members.

Recertification also is required every three years to keep HR current on industry issues and to further the practitioner s education in the field. Individuals can either retest, which means taking the most current version of the exam, or participate in 60 contact hours of HR-related activities. The cost to recertify is $75.

So is it worth it? "In my experience here at HRCI, I ve found that companies increasingly do look for certified professionals in HR [because it ensures a base line of competency]," says McDermott. With HR s role becoming more and more challenging and critical to the organization, few would argue the value of continued education.

Public employees can obtain a leadership certificate.
A program for mid-level public personnel professionals is the HRM (Human Resource Management) Professional Development Leadership Program. It was established several years ago by the Federal Section of Alexandria, Virginia-based International Personnel Management Association (IPMA), which serves HR professionals working in federal, state or local government.

The program s objective is to provide human resources professionals with a broad understanding of management issues. Due to government downsizing activity and attrition, IPMA s board of directors saw the need to "grow the next generation of federal HR managers," says Sarah Shiffert, senior director of association services. "The goal is to help mid-level HR become true business partners, rather than gatekeepers."

"The goal is to help mid-level HR become business partners, rather than gatekeepers," says Sarah Shiffert, senior director of IPMA services.

According to Shiffert, some of the competencies for becoming a business partner include understanding business process, clients and organizational culture, team behavior, communication, creating a risk taking environment, possessing good analytical skills, and being able to link HR to the organization s mission and service outcome. The program design includes:

  • Projects assigned to expand research, organizational, analysis and presentation skills.
  • Leadership seminars that focus on critical personal, communication and change management skills.
  • Classroom training provided by management experts from various federal agencies who discuss policy issues with practical application.
  • Visits to various organizations or legislative bodies to gain an appreciation for their perspectives on management issues.

Those who should consider this program are mid-level HR specialists (GS-11 through GS-13 levels) who want to enhance their professional development, advance in their careers and develop change management skills. Says Syrena West, an HR professional in the U.S. Department of Defense: "The program provided an opportunity to hear what people are doing in all disciplines in personnel from inside and outside the government. It was an experience of growth for me."

The program is held in the Washington, D.C. area in five separate sessions. Participants outside Washington, D.C., are responsible for their own travel, food and lodging, which aren t included in the tuition fee. Program costs are $900 for members of the Federal section, $915 for individual and agency members of IPMA without Federal Section membership, and $1,015 for all others.

To obtain more information, visit the IPMA Federal Section Web site at to download the application.

PERC certificate emphasizes Internet competency.
One of the lesser-known certification programs is the (CERP) designation. It s awarded by the Atlanta-based Positive Employee Relations Council (PERC), a network of 1,100 individuals in professional employee relations, legal or management positions around the world.

The CERP designation is awarded to HR professionals in the United States. The basis for certification is a minimum of five years experience as an HR professional (two years of university equals one year of experience), satisfactory completion of an exam testing Internet usage and a 40-question competency exam focusing on employment law. To test Internet competency, individuals are asked to demonstrate they can conduct HR-related research over the Internet for example, accessing URLs (Internet addresses) and sites that provide information on the AFL-CIO, drug testing and state and federal labor laws. In addition to testing Internet competency, true-false tests are given to assess knowledge of labor laws.

One essential difference between the SHRM and the CERP certification is the Internet knowledge required by the latter. SHRM certification is considered by many to be the most prestigious and most widely recognized, while CERP provides a more specific and less expensive route (less than $100).

One reason for its relative anonymity is the fact that it s limited to PERC network subscribers, and recognizes only those HR professionals who are proficient in the use of the Internet. As the need for intranets and electronic interactivity between management and employees become routine, more emphasis will be placed on new-age technology competencies. HR professionals who want to establish their techno-literacy may be interested in pursuing the CERP designation. A subscription fee of $95 is required, and includes:

  • Application fees for CERP designation
  • A subscription to the electronic newsletter for information regarding HR issues and articles
  • A free $79.95 CD-ROM entitled, "People Who Lead People," an interactive management development computer-based training system
  • Use of PERC s employee-opinion survey instrument
  • Free downloads and other electronic goodies.

For more information on CERP certification, visit PERC s Web site at:

Certificate programs in HR management offer another route.
Perhaps you ve always dreamed of obtaining a college degree. But for some reason, you weren t able to matriculate. Rather than, or in addition to, preparing for HRCI s certification, you can enroll in one of many certificate programs in human resources management available nationwide. These programs are typically offered as extension courses through local universities.

For example, University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension s Department of Business and Management offers 13 courses in HR management, including four online classes. The courses are designed to provide HR staff with the knowledge and practical skills one needs to meet today s competitive business environment, according to Patricia Hunt, head of the UCLA program.

Upon completion of a sequence of courses, a student can earn a certificate in human resources management. Or if matriculated as an undergraduate, the classes can be credited toward a bachelor s degree. The following courses are included in the curriculum:

  • Elements of Human Resources Management
  • Financial Aspects of Human Resources Management
  • Recruitment, Interviewing and Selection
  • Design, Implementation and Administration of Employee Compensation
  • Design, Implementation and Administration of Employee Benefits Programs
  • Employee Relations and Legal Aspects of Human Resources Management
  • Human Resources in a Business, Organizational and Management Context
  • Building a Future-oriented Human Resources Department
  • Human Resources Development.

Online courses include: Elements of HR Management; HR Development; Design, Implementation and Administration of Employee Compensation Program; and International Human Resources Management.

According to UCLA s HR faculty, the program offers students grounding in the major areas required of a personnel generalist. It also provides exposure to leading practitioners in the field, practical applications, convenient schedules (evenings and weekends) and group discounts for three or more employees from a company enrolling in the courses.

Those who are considering certification through extension courses should keep in mind that it requires more time and cost commitment.

However, those who are considering this option should keep in mind that it requires more time and cost commitment. Unlike the SHRM and CERP certifications, one isn t required to pass a test, but must complete all the requirements of each course. In terms of costs, college or university certificate programs in HR are much more expensive. Instead of paying a flat examination fee, you pay approximately $345 per course, which adds up when you multiply that by nine courses ($3,105).

Because the courses are offered through extension programs, students can test the waters by taking one course as a standalone. Upon getting a better feel for the program and faculty, you can then decide whether to matriculate or not.

Although HRCI s PHR and SPHR certificates are more widely known, Deming still recommends considering a university certificate program. The former, she says, is more respected than the university programs. However, the university programs provide more in-depth learning. "The training you get through [SHRM and PIHRA] is not for university credit. They help you study specifically for a test."

How to choose what s best for you.
Whether you seek an HR professional certification or a certificate in HR management from a university, assess your goals, needs and resources. Many of your colleagues may have one or both. Talk to them and ask what were their goals and benefits at the time they sought their certifications and certificates. What s good for them at one time may not be good for you now.

Speak to your HR colleagues to assess your skills matrix. By knowing your current areas of strengths and weaknesses, you ll be able to determine which program best suits your needs. And if you have time and cost restraints, those factors will also determine which path you pursue. Consider your long-term career goals, as well. If you want to climb the corporate ladder, professional certifications and college degrees are standard fare. Says Deming: "The key is to have enough options."

Workforce, May 1999, Vol. 78, No. 5, pp. 71-80.