Do Professional HR Certifications Really Help Job Seekers?

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Professional HR certifications have become commonplace in the past 20 years.

The HR Certification Institute (HRCI), affiliated with SHRM, has awarded the PHR (Professional in Human Resources) and two other certifications to 115,000 professionals. WorldatWork has awarded a CCP (Certified Compensation Professional) and five other specialized certifications to 22,000 rewards professionals.

Anne Ruddy, President and CEO of WorldatWork, reports that over half of all WorldatWork certifications have been awarded in the past 10 years. Other organizations also offer HR certifications, including the Human Capital Institute and many universities.

Both HRCI and WorldatWork report that relevant certifications are often required for HR positions, that payment for most certifications is provided by the employee’s organization, and that testimonials and survey data indicate that HR professionals value certifications.

Do professional HR certifications really help job seekers? Three key points seem to come up after interviews with a number of HR executives:

1. HR executives vary widely in their views on certifications

HR executives do not appear to hold a common point of view about the value of certifications. Terry Henley, SPHR, CCP, Director of Compensation Services for the Employers Resource Association, advises job seekers that, “you should make certain that you have as many professionals certifications as possible, for that is an indication that you are serious about HR as a profession and career.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Lisa Bender, Chief Human Resource Officer of the MITRE Corporation, who leads a staff of 75 professionals. She asks, “Are certifications worth it for new hires? I believe they are not. Experience is a much greater advantage.” Others take intermediate positions, indicating that certifications could be helpful in certain circumstances, which we consider next.

2. Certifications may help junior job seekers

Most executives indicate that experience and an advanced degree (such as an MBA) from a reputable university are more important than certifications, especially for senior positions. However, certifications sometimes are a tie-breaker for junior positions, for which a solid track record is unlikely.

Bill Dixey, Vice President of HR Client Services at Clorox, indicates that, “When we look at hiring for junior positions that don’t require a lot of experience, certification means something. For junior to mid-level people it’s a swing vote in hiring decisions.” For senior positions, he said, “experience and track record are much more important than and go way beyond certifications.”

However, some companies prefer to see a combination of experience and certifications even in junior positions.

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Chris Donigan, Corporate Vice President of Human Resources at medical products company B. Braun Inc., offered interesting advice about when to seek certifications. “If you pursue certification before you have had three to four years of experience, you’ll be memorizing facts, not understanding the material. As with an MBA, it is better to get some experience first.”

3. Relevant certifications can help in seeking certain positions

Many executives indicate that certifications are relevant for certain types of positions, especially technical positions. For example, most executives indicate that they prefer a CCP or other WorldatWork certification for rewards positions. Some companies prefer certifications for generalist positions as well.

Charles Bicknell is Director of Human Resources at Cambia Health Solutions, a not-for-profit company in the Pacific Northwest that includes health insurance plans carrying the BlueCross and BlueShield brands. Cambia, he indicates, sees certifications for HR generalists “as an indicator, all things being equal, of discipline and heft when going toe to toe with a business partner.”

The bottom line? Job seekers cannot assume that a prospective employer will value HR certifications. However, certifications sometimes help and rarely hurt in a job search for junior positions, especially those in technical fields such as rewards.

Most companies now cover the cost of certifications, eliminating a major barrier to pursuing such credentials. Given the highly competitive job market, it is easy to understand why an increasing number of junior professionals are pursuing certifications.

Gerry Ledford will talk about How Employee Engagement Can Pay Off, and Why It Often Doesn’t at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on attending this event. 

Gerald E. Ledford, Jr., Ph.D is a nationally recognized authority on human capital issues, including compensation and total rewards, talent management, organization design, change management, and management of the HR function. Currently he is president of Ledford Consulting Network in Redondo Beach, CA. Previously, Gerry was a leader at Sibson Consulting and served as Senior Vice President and National Practice Leader for Employee Effectiveness, the largest Sibson practice. He also was a research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. Contact him at gerry@ledfordconsultingnetwork.com .

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6 Comments on “Do Professional HR Certifications Really Help Job Seekers?

  1. According to SHRM’s own research in 2002, it’s certifications are not a reliable indicator that HR professionals have the essential knowledge to perform science-based HR work. Dr. Sara Rynes and colleagues at the University of Iowa conducted the research, which is published in several academic journals including Human Resource Management (HR Professional’s Beliefs About Effective Human Resource Practices – Summer 2002, pp. 149-174) and Academy of Management Executive (Seven Common Misconceptions About Human Resource Practices – 2002, Vol. 16(3), pp. 92-103). The research revealed that even the most experienced HR professionals with the highest certifications knew less than 60% of what is considered the most essential knowledge, plus these knowledge gaps were in the more important HR functions including hiring and performance management. I am not aware if SHRM responded by redesigning its certifications following this poor performance or if this research has been repeated more recently to measure potential improvement?

    1. James – Thank you very much for the citations.  BTW, Sara Rynes is a very highly regarded scholar. 

      I found it interesting in talking to people for the story that different executives have different views of the various certificaitons out there.  Some certifications have more credibility than others.  I would be interested in any commentary from readers about whether they see some certifications as better representing the body of knowledge in the field than others.   

  2. Well here I go with my 2 cents.   SHRM has done a masterful job of touting their own certs as great education for HR people wanting to have a “true body of knowledge”.   They must have a great marketing team.   I completely disagreewith their worth (could state it in more blunt terms but will refrain).   I was forced by my manager to take the GPHR after having 20 years in international HR.   I was shocked at the material — it was awful —- 20% labor laws including the U.S.????   20% cultural theory and 60% expatriates.  Anyone with any experience knows that expatriates are 5% of international.   Yet this material was supposed to written by subject matter experts????  

    No SHRM hasn’t re-written anything.  Why should they.   They get money/good press for doing nothing.  They sit on their laurels and somehow still reap all the benefits.   Really for newbie HR person —- not strategic at all.

    Now Human Capital Institute on the other hand has fantastic seminars that lead to certs.  The one I took on Strategic Workforce Planning was the best 2 days I have spent in my whole 20+ years in HR.  (Just to show you I am not a complete cynic)

    From a professional level I agree that certs are only helpful at entry level.  But I can say that for any type of degree —- MS, BS or MBA.   After a person has 5 years or so of experience it is the results/achievement the person can show —- education does not mean anything.

    Unfortunately recruiters (who often are placed in recruiting as their first job in HR) think certs are great for any professional — entry level to 20 years of experience.   A way to eliminate resumes is my guess.

  3. Even though I am currently certified with SPHR and previously PHR, I don’t necessarily believe that these letters prove anything about my level of proficiency in my chosen profession. 

    In fact, based on most information I’ve viewed on this topic, the vast majority of certified professionals obtain certifications following “studying” for the test versus actually having sufficient real-world knowledge or subject-matter awareness to pass without doing so… 

    Aside from the price of the test and certification fees, I have never invested a single cent or spent even a minute to prepare for the tests and I passed them each time. That said, I struggled to find any OTJ relevance with the bulk of test content and found many questions to be highly subjective. 
    Another major issue I find is that most “approved” courses, seminars, conference sessions (for re-certification) are extraordinarily costly. Even worse, the content rarely adds value from a learning perspective. The local events sponsored by PIHRA or NHRA that I’ve attended were geared toward “old news” type of topics and/or “stating the obvious” that anyone with any reasonable level of competence as an HR practitioner “should” already know. 
    Are employers preferring or requiring these certifications getting what they think they are or are they too being fooled into the myth that these letters somehow add value?

    It seems that the practically universal expectation that a person have these certifications in order to remain competitive is an unfortunate form of professional peer pressure. Despite not personally finding the certification particularly valuable, I feel obligated to maintain it or risk being viewed as less qualified. 

    I agree with Jacque about the overall impact a person makes should matter far more than any degrees, certification or even number of years of experience.

  4. I have a question actually. What body allows the SHRM and WorldatWork to produce and market certification and recertifications in the US?

  5. While I agree in most cases experience significantly outweighs any certification, the point is that anyone can pretend to have experience that they do not (inflating job roles on their resume), however the certification is more easily verified and at least shows some effort (typically taking a prescribed number of courses, passing an exam, earning continuing ed credits to keep the certification). The other thing to consider is that some people have years of experience in a particular field but have been doing it wrong the whole time. Often the certification training and related exams ensures that one grasps the “best practices”.

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