Certification, HR Certification, HRCI, PHR, SHRM Certification, SHRM-CP, SPHR

Which HR Certification is Better? An Analysis of the SHRM-CP and PHR

Over the last few years, the piece I wrote about the PHR vs the SHRM-CP certifications has been seen hundreds of thousands of times. I’ve had dozens of comments and questions from people, and over time my thoughts have changed a bit and have become more clear. Plus, some of the actions of the certifying bodies themselves are changing how I view the world. First, let’s address the question at hand.

What Do the SHRM-CP and PHR Certifications Cover?

The PHR exam is offered by HRCI and covers some key areas of practice for today’s HR leaders:

  • Business Management and Strategy (11% of exam content)
  • Workforce Planning and Employment (24%)
  • Human Resource Development (18%)
  • Compensation and Benefits (19%)
  • Employee and Labor Relations (20%)
  • Risk Management (8%)

It’s important to look at the weight of each content area, because that’s what HRCI judges are the most applicable areas for early career HR pros. Workforce planning and employment focuses heavily on recruiting and managing workers and the legal aspects surrounding those decisions. The second heaviest area is on employee and labor relations. Despite unions only being present in 10% of U.S. workplaces, this has a heavy weight because it’s something that HR must run point on in the event that collective bargaining is required.

It’s very easy to see in each area what kinds of content you would expect. In HR Development, you’ll find content on training and employee growth. In Risk Management, you’ll find information on safety and security. It’s really straightforward.

Alternatively, the SHRM-CP exam is broken into different types of competencies.

  • Leadership: Leadership and navigation, ethical practice
  • Interpersonal: Relationship management, communication, and global/cultural effectiveness
  • Business: Business acumen, consultation, critical evaluation

Within each of these areas we could touch on a variety of HR facets. Instead of being broken out by functional area, as HR roles often are at larger companies, SHRM looks at the HR profession through the lens of a handful of key qualities that each person should have in order to advance and succeed in the profession.

It’s not as clear at first glance how the competencies actually shake out, though. Let’s take the navigation competency for a moment. The SHRM-CP would test someone’s ability to understand formal and informal work roles leader goals, and relationships between employees. The SHRM-SCP, on the other hand, would look at these same relationships through the lens of an executive, understanding that higher-level insight and interaction. This is just one competency, but it shows how they can vary from the CP to the Senior CP exams.

Which HR Certification is Better?

When SHRM created the certifications, they didn’t necessarily “map” them to the two options already on the table intentionally, but when they created their Pathway tool to help currently certified individuals transfer their certification to SHRM for free, SHRM very much made it clear that they saw the PHR as equivalent to SHRM-CP and the SPHR equivalent to SHRM-SCP in the nature and quality of the certification.

That said, after talking with students taking both exams, talking with instructors for both exams, and looking at the test prep tools we provide and the students using them to take ALL FOUR exam types (if we don’t include the aPHR, which people often use our courses for), I have started to create a sort of divide in my mind.

  • If you want to prove your knowledge and mastery of HR-related business law, an understanding of the general concepts and theories underlying HR, and you work in HR at an organization with under 250 people, the PHR is going to be very helpful to you. This is because we are counted on in these roles (especially at smaller companies) to know the legal aspects and the SHRM exam does not cover them fully.
  • If you want to use the SHRM career resources, learn some intangible aspects of HR like leadership, consulting behaviors, and navigating your career, and you work at a larger or mature organization, then the SHRM-CP may be a better bet. That’s because the larger the company, the larger the HR team, and you might not need to be a specialist on HR laws and compliance to excel and move forward.

This is obviously my opinion, but when I look at the content each exam covers and how I have used it in my career (plus the dozens of interviews with HR leaders since the HRCI/SHRM split a few years back), this is the best way I can define the difference in the two exams.

That said, the re-certification process also ties in to this discussion somewhat. It’s an area I will touch on very soon because just yesterday I heard more than a dozen angry HR leaders talking about how upset they were about one of the provider’s methods of awarding credits. There’s a hidden battle going on over your re-certification credits and you might not even know it’s happening!

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