Most industries are made up of professionals, and those professionals often form organizations to help advance their fields. Those organizations often develop tests or examinations they can use, to judge the skills, knowledge, and abilities of people in their industry. With a properly rigorous examination, a certification can become a valuable asset, and people who hold those certifications become more sought-after than their counterparts who have not passed the exam.
In many ways, Human Resources isn’t very different. There are three primary certifications in the industry: SHRM-CP, PHR, and SPHR. If you’re looking to make yourself a valuable HR asset, you could probably benefit from acquiring certification, but which one should you focus on?
Let’s examine these certifications and determine their quality. Who issues them? How rigorous are their standards? Are there any loopholes, flaws, or issues with the systems?
What Is SHRM-CP/SCP?
SHRM-CP is a certification offered by SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management. SHRM is a recognized authority in the human resources space, and their content is frequently cited on this blog and many others. They know what they’re talking about, and are one of the largest human resources organizations in the world.
SHRM offers two certifications, of which -CP is the first. The other is SHRM-SCP, which we’ll discuss lightly as well. SHRM promotes their certifications as:
- Competency-based. Rather than testing your ability to memories facts and strategies, they test how well you’re able to implement them.
- The exams are updated routinely to include information about how these modern workplaces work, rather than an outdated view of how they should work.
- The SHRM certifications are applicable in any industry and any country, rather than within certain boundaries.
- Thousands of employers seek human resources employees with certifications, and SHRM-CP is often the certification being cited as “in-demand”.
The exam is also accredited.
According to SHRM:
“The SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP exams are accredited by the Buros Center for Testing, asserting that the HR credentials meet the highest standards in testing.”
You can learn more about what this means here.
What Are the Requirements of SHRM-CP?
Before you can take an SHRM examination, you must meet certain requirements. These requirements depend on the exam you want to take and your education level.
SHRM-CP (Certified Professional) requires:
- If your education is less than a Bachelor’s Degree and you are in an HR role: Three years of HR experience.
- If your education is less than a Bachelor’s Degree and you are not in an HR role: Four years of HR experience.
- If you have an HR-related Bachelor’s Degree: One year of HR experience.
- If you have a non-HR-related Bachelor’s Degree: Two years of HR experience.
- If you have a non-HR-related Master’s Degree: One year of HR experience.
- If you have an HR-related Master’s Degree: Current employment of any duration.
The price of the exam varies as well; $300 for early bird members, $400 for early bird non-members, $375 for non-early members, and $475 for non-early non-members.
SHRM-SCP (Senior Certified Professional) is similar, but all of the numbers are increased. You can read their chart here.
The SHRM-CP examination is broken into segments covering core competencies, such as leadership techniques, ethical practice, relationship management, cultural effectiveness, business acumen, and critical evaluation.
What Is PHR/SPHR and What Are Its Requirements?
aPHR, PHR, and SPHR are three certifications offered by HRCI, the Human Resources Certification Institute. HRCI is not quite as large or as old as SHRM, though they are in the modern-day relatively comparable organizations, and they are both headquartered in the same city.
In actuality, they offer many more than three certifications:
- aPHR: Associate Professional in Human Resources, aimed at newcomers to the HR industry starting their careers.
- aPHRi: Associate Professional in Human Resources (International), the same certification, aimed at international roles.
- PHR: Professional in Human Resources, aimed at established HR employees who want to progress in their careers.
- PHRca: Professional in Human Resources (California), a CA-specific variant for the test for local employees.
- PHRi: Professional in Human Resources (International), the upgraded version of aPHRi.
- SPHR: Senior Professional in Human Resources, aimed at established professionals looking to move into the upper ranks of HR executives.
- SPHRi: Senior Professional in Human Resources (International), the same thing for international roles.
- GPHR: Global Professional of Human Resources, a certification for top-level executives who primarily work with multinational corporations and who have globalized concerns.
All of these different certifications have different requirements for education and experience levels. They all have a $100 application fee, as well as a fee to take the exam, ranging from $300 to $500 depending on the exam. You can view each certification here, and check each of their requirements individually.
The breakdown of what each PHR certification covers varies from exam to exam. For example, the general PHR exam, comparable to SHRM-CP, has this breakdown:
- 39% Employee and Labor Relations
- 20% Business Management
- 16% Talent Planning and Acquisition
- 15% Total Rewards
- 10% Learning and Development
HRCI is unique in that they offer the introductory certification aPHR, all the way up to high-end executive certifications in GPHR, with many options in between. SHRM does not offer quite as much variation. This is good, in that it gives a granular impression of the skills and abilities of the person with the certification. On the other hand, it means a professional in HR will need to progress through many more certifications and spend much more money doing so throughout their career.
How Do These Certifications Compare?
Each certification has its niche. They are all valuable, but which one is more valuable often depends on your goals as a human resources professional.
SHRM certifications are broadly recognized. The organization SHRM is one of the largest in the field and has global membership. Their certifications test a lot of soft skills, and they are often well-rounded certifications that prepare you for a long career in human resources.
SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP are good certifications if you intend to work in a large organization with large HR teams, or dedicated teams for other related aspects of HR, such as legal and compliance. Since the SHRM exams do not cover legalities, compliance policies, and specifics quite as much, they are better suited to generalists and administrators.
The PHR certifications offered by HRCI are more granular, which means they are a better indication of the skill level of the prospective employee. When you have aPHR but not PHR, an employer knows you have basic skills and experience but haven’t reached a level of professional attainment they might want in an experienced hire. If you have PHR but not SPHR, likewise they know you’re experienced but not senior-level.
PHR certifications are better than SHRM certifications in two ways.
- They cover more in the way of legality, compliance, and technical details. SHRM tends to test more soft skills and the application of management techniques, where PHR are generally more concerned with specific knowledge and compliance.
- They are better for international or global companies. PHRi or the GPHR certifications are designed for companies that operate in non-US countries or across borders, and thus have special concerns that domestic companies might not.
PHR certifications also seem to be better regarded, though this varies from company to company and industry to industry. From UpstartHR:
“My immediate supervisor is PHR credentialed. When I announced that I had earned my SHRM-CP credential, the response was underwhelming and I was left with the impression that they are not convinced that it is on par with the PHR credential.”
Additionally, it seems that the industry broadly recognizes HRCI more than SHRM, at least in terms of certifications. Again, according to UpstartHR:
“In terms of purely being recognized by the hiring community as a show of your professional skills, HRCI certifications are requested about four times as often as SHRM certifications.”
It’s also worth mentioning that SHRM is a membership society, while HRCI is not. This means that members of SHRM can gain many benefits from the organization, without necessarily needing to take and pass their exams.
It’s also worth noting that these certifications (while overlapping) are not mutually exclusive. You can take and pass both if you have the time and funds for it. The truth is, however, that a lot depends on the organization whether or not this will be valuable. Companies often tend to prefer one or the other, but the preference of which usually comes down to which one the head of the HR department themselves happens to have.
Which Certification Should You Pursue?
Several factors will influence what certification you should pursue. Consider the following questions to help you decide which of these certifications make the most sense for you and your profession.
Are you new to HR and want a certification to kick-start your career? If so, go with the aPHR certification. The SHRM-CP certification is aimed at mid-level professionals. Unless you have an HR-focused Master’s Degree, you need several years’ worth of experience in HR to even qualify to take the test. Thus, the only real certification available to you as a newcomer to the profession is aPHR.
How large is the organization you want to work for? Small companies often tend to prefer PHR certifications. This is because they tend to be broader and more applicable to various facets of HR, including legal issues. SHRM certifications don’t cover all of this. If your company is small and needs a “jack of all trades” HR professional, the PHR certifications are a better option.
Conversely, if your company is large enough to have a dedicated legal/compliance team, you may not need that specialization that PHR provides. The SHRM certifications are generally better for putting your skills and knowledge into practice and can arm you with powerful techniques for managing a dedicated HR team.
How global is your organization? As mentioned, PHR is often best for smaller companies, while SHRM is good for mid-to-large organizations. However, the largest organizations, the multinationals, and the global corporations tend to swing back in PHR’s favor. The international and global PHR certifications are extremely useful in these contexts and teach a lot of international, regional, and cultural facets of HR that SHRM might not.
That said, not all major corporations care about certifications at that upper level. By the time you’re reaching executive and C-level human resources roles, certifications are less important than your experience and your track record. Companies will often care more about what other organizations you’ve worked for and what tangible results you’ve brought to them over any pieces of paper you’ve earned from a certifying body.
Which certification does your organization prefer? This is not an objective factor. If your company prefers PHR certifications, earning a PHR certification is better than earning an SHRM certification. Conversely, if your organization prefers SHRM, a PHR certification may be less valuable.
If you’re looking to leave your current organization in favor of a different company, it can be worthwhile to investigate the leaders of HR for that company. Look at their LinkedIn bios and their professional portfolios, and see which certifications they have earned. This can inform you which one will be better for applying to that organization.
Some factors are not a real concern. For example, both organizations have similar continuing education requirements, and the pricing for exams is comparable enough to make no difference. The education and experience requirements for SHRM certifications are mirrored by their equivalent PHR certifications. PHR is more granular but offers more room for mobility.
The long and the short of it is that neither certification is truly better than the other. They are comparable in many ways, and they are better than not having a certification at all. However, if you’re interested in specific areas of human resources, like international or legal HR, you may be more inclined to earn PHR certifications over SHRM. Conversely, if you’re in an organization that is a member of the SHRM and prefers its atmosphere, the SHRM certifications may be more valuable.