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HR certification update: a look at HRCI and SHRM programs

A lot has changed since last spring when the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) announced it was launching a new certification program for HR professionals. The move surprised not just practitioners interested in enhancing their professionalism by earning certification. It also surprised HR Certification Institute (HRCI), the organization that runs what was for decades the only HR certification game in town.

Now that the dust has settled and SHRM’s new program has been awarding certifications for over a month, HR professionals need to figure out how they want to proceed—earn the familiar credentials from HRCI, dive into the new competency-based program SHRM has devised, or earn and maintain two certifications, each with its own focus. Here’s a look at how the programs size up.

  • Both organizations tout professional competencies, with HRCI officials claiming their certifications—Professional in Human Resources (PHR), Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), and Global Professional in Human Resources (GPHR) being the most common—include competencies and always have in spite of SHRM’s claims.
  • SHRM officials say their program is extremely relevant to the profession today. Alex Alonso, vice president of research and SHRM certification, says the organization is seeing an “amazing response” from professionals who have earned the new certification and those wanting to be involved as exam developers, instructors, discussion leaders, and more. He said he’s actually had to turn people away at times because of the overwhelming response from people wanting be involved. “At every touch point, we have 20-30 people lining up,” he says.

Where SHRM stands
SHRM reports that as of late January, more than 15,000 professionals had completed the “pathway” to be certified as either a Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) or Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP), the two credentials being offered. In launching the new certification program, SHRM decided to allow professionals who hold credentials from HRCI to earn SHRM certification just by completing an online tutorial. Until the break last spring, HRCI and SHRM were closely aligned.

Through 2015, professionals with HRCI credentials in good standing are allowed to take the tutorial without paying a fee or mastering study materials and passing a test. Those earning the SHRM certification through the pathway don’t relinquish their certification from HRCI. If they want to maintain both certifications, they have to go through the recertification procedures outlined by both organizations.

SHRM’s Alonso emphasizes that he’s seen a strong positive response from professionals taking the tutorial. He says he’s heard professionals comment that the points made in the tutorial are particularly relevant to their jobs. He said he’s had people note that some of the items in the tutorial sound like they were written by their bosses.

SHRM faced criticism when it announced that for the first year, holders of HRCI certifications will be virtually assured of earning a SHRM credential by signing the SHRM Code of Ethics and reviewing a tutorial focusing on competencies. Some asked why credential holders could gain SHRM certification without passing a test just by holding a certification that SHRM considered inadequate.

Alonso explains that SHRM officials “had numerous philosophical thoughts about this.” He says they looked at the research and identified the core competencies that make someone successful in the field. He says SHRM wants to ensure people understand the two components of competencies—behavior and technical knowledge. The tutorial pathway serves that purpose by covering the key behaviors needed for success while still honoring technical knowledge.

Where HRCI stands
More than 135,000 HR professionals around the world hold one or more HRCI credentials, according to the organization’s website and Carol Harrison, senior partner at Global Gateway Advisors in Brooklyn, New York. She responded to questions on behalf of HRCI.

“HRCI certification is the clear choice for those seeking a trusted, proven, accredited HR certification that is well regarded and recognized by organizations around the world,” Harrison says, adding that SHRM’s pathway for already-certified professionals to earn initial SHRM certification “is a no-fail, free route versus HRCI’s hard-earned and accredited letters.” HRCI’s program holds accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.

Harrison points out that currently there is no test available for SHRM’s certification program and, unlike HRCI’s, SHRM’s program has no accreditation. SHRM says it is taking steps to gain accreditation once it has the record required by accrediting agencies. Its first testing window opens in May.

Harrison also says HR professionals should choose HRCI certification because it “demonstrates relevance, competence, experience, credibility, and dedication to human resources to your employers, clients, staff members, and professional peers.” She also says HRCI is noting continued and expanded support for its certification from employers.

During a “town hall” program in October that’s available on the organization’s website, Amy Schabacker Dufrane, HRCI’s CEO, said that from all the “hype” it sounds like HR competencies are something new, but they’re not. She explained that HRCI has signed a partnership agreement with the HR experts involved in a large HR competencies study, the Human Resource Competency Study.

Dufrane said HRCI will be involved in the study and help evaluate how HR competencies are changing and how they drive business performance. She said HRCI’s partnership with the study shows the organization’s credibility in the subject matter.


Both organizations outline the specifics of their programs on their websites. SHRM outlines certification specifics, exam fees, exam preparation materials, a competencies overview, an explanation of its Body of Competency and Knowledge, and more.

HRCI includes information on the various certifications it offers, exam preparation, recertification, how to apply for certification, and more.