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In the HR profession, one of the most talked about, debated about and argued about topics over the last couple of years has been the topic of HR Certification. Since SHRM has announced their competency based certification in 2014, lines have been drawn and caused an (in my opinion) unnecessary furor.


In order to fully understand the whole hubbub, I think we need to look at the history of the topic. In the late 1960’s, SHRM (then known as the American Society of Personnel Administrators) along with Cornell University, set out to define what the HR profession was. Over the period of two years, they  came up with 5 characteristics to define the profession:

  • The profession must be full time.
  • Schools and curricula must be aimed superficially at teaching the basic ideas of the profession, and there must be a defined common body of knowledge.
  • The profession must have a national professional association.
  • The profession must have a certification program.
  • The profession must have a code of ethics.


According to Drew Young, president of ASPA, all criteria was met except for a defined body of knowledge and certification program.  In the early 70’s, ASPA board began serious talk on creating a national certification program. In what will turn out to be a bit ironic, they shied away from using term certification because they felt the program could only test professionals on their level of knowledge but there was a fear that people might equate “certification” with competency.

In 1976, the first accreditation exams were given and it slowly began to pick up speed. By the end of 1978, only 753 people had take the exam but by 2009, over 100,000 HR professionals held the PHR, SPHR or GPHR designation. During that time, the test had been based on the HR Body of Knowledge which covered 6 areas of knowledge of the profession: 1) Business Management and Strategy, 2) Workforce Planning and Employment, 3) Human Resource Development, 4) Compensation and Benefits, 5) Employee and Labor Relations and 6) Risk Management. During this time the accrediting organization also changed to the name they hold today, the Human Resource Certification Institute and was an independent organization affiliated with the Society for Human Resource Management (formerly ASPA).

In 2011, things began to change.  SHRM began to look at the changing profession of HR as a whole. In addition to the traditional knowledge that HR professionals needed to master, SHRM started to look at the business skills that HR pros needed to demonstrate in order to support organizational goals and objectives. This lead to the beginning of the development of the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (BoCK).

The SHRM BoCK looks at the area of HR expertise and knowledge that all HR pros need to master (areas of People, Organization, Workplace and Strategy) but also those areas of behavioral competencies (consultation, critical evaluation, global and cultural awareness, communication, business acumen, ethical practice, leadership and relationship management) that combine to build effective individual performance which adds to a successful organization.

In developing a certification exam to include the new competencies and existing knowledge, SHRM had to come up with a new format, one that included the traditional knowledge questions but also included a way to apply that knowledge into ways to assess the decision making and application skills of that knowledge and new competencies. That led to the creation of the situational based judgment question. I compare it to a word problem back in my school math days.  A situation is outlined and 4 answers are shown. Because more than one strategy may be effective for addressing actual work-related scenarios, examinees will receive full credit for choosing the best possible answer, or partial credit for choosing the second-best possible answer.  As any HR pro knows, it is not always a one solution to any problem.


Since being introduced in January, 2015, the SHRM-CP and SCP almost 100, 000 HR professionals hold the SHRM Certifications. As far as acceptance of the new certifications, in an average month, approximately 5000 job postings (across all job boards) seek the SHRM Certification, an increase of 600 % from the inaugural year. Also, 3 out of every 4 exam-taker would recommend the SHRM Certification over another HR certification.

SHRM has developed an App for Certification holders that will make it easier to track recertification credits to help make the recertification process easier.  Also, there are plans to make a Spanish and Chinese language version of the exam available to ensure it is a universally accepted and used accreditation. The BoCK will undergo examination and updates on a regular basis.  Finally, some have asked about the status of accreditation of the exam and Certification process. This takes time but everything should be submitted and approved by the end of 2016.  Every Certification has to go through this process.

Full disclosure: I currently hold both the SHRM-SCP (obtained by the Pathway AND testing) and SPHR. I have no plans on getting rid of either. I am an Instructor for Northern Illinois University’s HR Outreach program teaching the SHRM Certification Preparation Program since January 2015. Prior to that I taught the SHRM Learning System preparing HR pros to take and pass the HRCI Certification exam.

This blog is part of a special series providing insights into HR certification. Click here for the sister article as part of this series. Click here to connect to HR re-certification webinars and webcast resources. You can also read more about the 40+ different HR certification offerings

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