HR Certification: Evaluating a”Free” Credential by Applying What We Know

It’s time to think like the HR professionals we are.

As professionals in human resource management, we all assess human capital and the credentials that candidates present as qualification for the position they desire.

In the ongoing conversation about SHRM’s newly announced certifications, I have read comments that make me wonder if we’re applying our own professional expertise for ourselves, as we would for a hiring manager or a client.

A typical scenario

Try this scenario-based question:

A new institution called Brandex College has been founded, but faces stiff challenges. As a new institution in higher education, it won’t qualify for accreditation until it has a track record, which takes years. It also lacks alumni, who are critical to success.

To quickly develop an alumni base, Brandex College makes an unprecedented offer: it will award a degree at no cost to anyone who possesses the same degree from an accredited institution. Show a diploma, complete a brief questionnaire and sign a form, and you are the proud holder of a degree from Brandex College.

As you are assessing candidates for a position, you receive a resume from a candidate who possesses two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Business: one from a well-known public university and the other from Brandex College.

What would you do?

As an HR professional, which of the following do you do?

A. Credit the candidate for holding two degrees in the desired field;

B. Congratulate the candidate for being so resourceful;

C. Base your assessment on the state university degree and ignore the other;

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D. Question the candidate’s integrity for presenting a degree that did not require actual work.

Based on my own experience and knowledge of our field, “C” would be the obvious best answer. However, if this question were to appear in the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP exam, where partial credit will be given for the second best answer, “D” could also be an appealing choice.

Of course we would not consider a degree granted simply on the basis of another degree and gained with no personal investment of time or resources to be a valid credential. So why are some certified professionals considering SHRM’s offer of a free certification with no test required?

Why would you want a “free” certification?

I challenge everyone holding a current HR certification to think twice before accepting the offer of a “free” certification. As a professional whose business is talent, you wouldn’t give credit for a credential that was acquired in this way. Why would we validate the practice by participating it in ourselves?

As professionals, our actions must have a better justification than “because it’s free and easy.” We owe it to ourselves to respect our profession and the credentials we have earned, and know that any credential worth having is also worth earning.

As for me, I am responding to SHRM’s offer by saying, “no thanks, Hank.” I will stick with a certification that I have earned, and if I ever decide to acquire another one, I’ll earn that too.

Jim Steele, EdD, GPHR, SPHR is Associate Professor of Management at George Fox University, where he teaches courses in management, HR, and global business in the MBA and DBA programs. Jim co-developed the MBA program’s concentration in Strategic Human Resource Management. Prior to his teaching career, Steele was an HR executive for over 20 years at companies including Intel and Matsushita. He is a volunteer director on the board of the HR Certification Institute, and has served as a volunteer in numerous capacities for both HRCI and the SHRM Foundation. Jim’s e-mail address is


21 Comments on “HR Certification: Evaluating a”Free” Credential by Applying What We Know

  1. Excellent points Jim. I agree with everything you present in this article. There is no professional value in these unaccredited and unvalidated SHRM credentials. All HRCI certified professionals should reject what amounts to a pathetic attempt to create a perception of legitimacy by SHRM.

  2. Great article and analogies. Thanks so much for presenting such logic! Anything worth having needs to “earned”. I’m proud of my credentials because they were earned and I intend to make sure they continue to be of value. I will also be saying “no thanks!” to Hank.

  3. Excellent point! As HR pros, we wouldn’t accept “diploma mill” diplomas as valid proof of a candidate’s expertise. Anyone who can access the internet can buy one. Why would we do essentially the same thing for ourselves?

  4. Allow me take the role of devil’s advocate and offer a challenge to your scenario. You don’t seem to be disputing the validity of the new SHRM competency based certification, only that they are not making current PHR/SPHR certified professionals pay a fee to take the exam. Do you feel paying an exam fee would add validity to the test or, ultimately, the certification?
    To follow your scenario, if the new institution still required demonstration of the body of knowledge through exams, are these new graduates less educated simply because they paid no tuition? To take that one step further, even at well established institutions there are students who do not pay tuition as a result of grants, awards, scholarships, etc. Are the degrees they earn diminished or somehow invalid for not having to pay tuition?
    Perhaps I missed a communication, but to the best of my current understanding, SHRM’s offer is only one of waiving the fee to take the exam for certification, not waiver of fee AND knowledge testing.

    1. Either way (I don’t think you need to take the exam to get the SHRM cert), the cert that you get this way is not in perpetuity. If you want to keep the SHRM cert, you still need to get the continuing ed and prove your competence. I find this article to be incredibly self-serving on the part of HRCI.

      1. And the recertification requirements for the SHRM credential are almost IDENTICAL to those for HRCI. Given that, combined with giving the credential to thousands of HR pros without taking the exam, how is the SHRM certification competency based and the HRCI certification isn’t?

        I can get the credential simply by having an HRCI certification. I can maintain it by submitting the same activities that I submit to HRCI. Yet, SHRM insists that my HRCI credential doesn’t demonstrate competency but theirs does. That doesn’t make any logical sense.

    2. You, unfortunately, did not do your homework. You have it all wrong. Your message is based on inaccurate information. Try again.

      1. I have it “all” wrong? The last information I saw was that some sort of testing would be required. Even if I have that part wrong, the rest of my statement, or really questions, are plausible.
        Though I appreciate your effort to provide useful information for me.

        1. But you ARE wrong. Numerous people have corrected you both here and on the discussion at HRCI Voices.

          Once more, here is what is required to obtain the SHRM certification.

          1-Document that you have a current certification.
          2-Sign the SHRM Code of Ethics
          3-Watch a short video tutorial and answer a couple of questions.

          There is absolutely NO REQUIREMENT to take an actual exam to receive the SHRM credential.

          1. Chip – reread my original post and the challenges/questions I posed as well as the one you chose to “correct” me over. Your own comment says that if you follow the SHRM invite, you’ll be answering questions based on the video. While not the full blown exam I went through for my SPHR (which I’ve acknowledged if you take the time to read rather than simply react) to be sure, when you are answering questions based on information presented in the video that IS a test of what is presented in the video. But that’s being picky.
            You seem to mistake my unwillingness to jump on the bashing bandwagon as failure to comprehend. Not the same things at all.

          2. TNoebel, the questions they make you answer are not a test. They are not graded. If you get it wrong, they have you try again, and again, and again until you choose the correct answer.

  5. TNoebel – With respect, SHRM is offering precisely what Jim Steele postulates in his blog. The offer is to receive a certification from SHRM without ever taking the exam – simply complete a 20-minute ungraded tutorial and sign an ethics statement. It’s not about paying the fee, it’s about taking the exam. That’s his point. It’s entirely unearned.
    As the Guest below says, you will still need to recertify for the SHRM credential with the same sort of activities that HRCI requires, though there is nothing in SHRM’s recertification requirements that ask you to “prove your competence.”
    Jim’s point is spot on. Those of us who assess candidates’ backgrounds wouldn’t give a bit of credit for an unearned credential, and some of us might disqualify such a candidate. Disappointing, then, to hear fellow HR professionals say they’ll take SHRM’s BOGO offer without considering the ethics. And shame on SHRM for making the offer as a marketing ploy.

    1. As I posted elsewhere, if the new SHRM certification has demonstrable value to add, I will consider it. If not, then I won’t.

  6. Todd,

    I think that others have captured the essence of what I was trying to say about SHRM’s offer to certify anyone with an HRCI credential without an examination, and at no cost. Clearly, the “freebie” is what gets people’s attention, but my most critical concern about this offer is that a certification given and acquired in this way demonstrates nothing about professional knowledge, skills and abilities.

    I’ve posted a more comprehensive response to the concerns you voiced in the HRCI Voices group on LinkedIn.

  7. If an individual currently holds a PHR or SPHR and then
    decided to continue to pursue after a SHRM certification, who is to question
    whether they took the exam or signed a code of ethics and easily had it handed
    over to them? Either way it is generally the same body of knowledge, you SHOULD
    already know the information and have already passed your exam and have to continue to uphold your certification. The comparison written by the author is a little
    out there; trying to compare degrees by a lower level institution to a higher
    level institution. SHRM and HRCI were once joined. If you are saying one is
    worse than the other than we all have a problem; because they just recently
    branched off and we all received our certifications when they were combined!

    1. T, my comparison isn’t between levels of institution, it’s a comparison between a credential with a defined course of study and a valid means of assessment, versus one that is handed out with neither of those as a marketing gimmick. If you hold a PHR or SPHR, you’ve demonstrated mastery for the HRCI Body of Knowledge. SHRM insists that its “Body of Knowledge and Competency” is somehow superior, but is offering its certification to those holding PHR or SPHR credentials without any form of assessment. Doesn’t that strike you as inconsistent?

      One has to wonder what the motivation is for such an act? Surely, when SHRM attempts to have their certifications accredited, this is going to come up, and the fact that they have handed out their certificates without assessment will not reflect well on the rigor of their process. Like the example, it is a “quick fix” attempt to get people to carry their letters. And as I heard Hank Jackson say in a town hall meeting in Washington, “we don’t care how you get them”.

      That, to me is a big difference between a credible certification and something else. Credible certification agencies – not just HRCI – care how certifications are acquired. That is one of the hallmarks of accreditation. As a member of SHRM, I am very disappointed that our organization’s leadership has chosen this strategy that cheapens the certification they are touting.

  8. I’m not interested in being the next one into this sausage grinder, but I seem to recall a bunch of PHRs and possibly SPHRs were similarly grandfathered into that designation and were exempted from continuing ed requirements….That’s what I heard from one such “lifer” about 10 years ago….it mattered not to me, because I had to take the exam, but if there were exemptions for HRCI alums, where’s the strength of Mr. Steele’s argument?

    1. WC, the practice of “lifetime certification” was discontinued by HRCI in 1996. Here is a comment from HRCI’s Director of Certification Products that tells the story:

      From the HRCI Recertification Handbook: “Prior to 1996, the HR Certification Institute granted Life Certification to certified HR professionals who had successfully recertified their designation at least twice. In 1996, the HR Certification Institute’s Board of Directors discontinued this option, recognizing that a constantly changing profession requires continual professional development.”

      Life Certification is no longer an option for high quality certification programs. In fact, a recertification component is required of all accredited certifications under both the NCCA and ANSI standards, to ensure the continued competence of certified professionals.

  9. Isn’t SHRM basically saying, by accepting the existing certification holders, that the HRCI certifications are the gold standard? In that sense, I have earned the certification and SHRM is merely piggybacking on my attainment in order to fill their coffers. I’m of two minds on this topic: I know the value of my SPHR; I don’t feel diminished by the new SHRM certification because I know I proved my competence in earning the SPHR and in continuously learning since then. The proof will be in the pudding, however; in future years, how rigorous will the certification process be for new SHRM credential holders, and will business ever accord those certifications the same level of respect that the HRCI certs now hold? I continue to be baffled at the continuing poor decisions and seeming utter lack of understanding of how badly they (the SHRM leadership) have handled this entire process. What the hell were/are they thinking??

  10. I received my PHR a couple of years ago. I am in the process of re-certifying. My worry is that if somehow the PHR/SPHR is discontinued, I am then left with having to go through a new certification process that was expensive and time consuming. I am probably going to take SHRM up on it’s offer and continue to maintain my PHR as long as possible. Eventually I will have to re-certify the new designation and I will do so. I understand the ethics of it, but if the new designation is based on what the old one was, I don’t understand why I shouldn’t take them up on it as I’ll still be doing the recertification.

    1. ALL, it’s your choice, but worrying about PHR or SPHR being discontinued should not be a part of the equation. HRCI is not going away. It is a well-managed, solvent nonprofit dedicated to the mission of HR professionalism and will support its certificants, regardless of other competing certifications that may exist.

  11. Regarding the argument that SHRM-CP’s and -SCP’s will have earned their certification once they recertify – Note in SHRM’s materials that recertification credits related to SHRM’s vaunted competency model are NOT required. You can earn all 60 credits in any HR practice area. This is a LOWER standard than HRCI, which requires SPHR’s to obtain 15 credit hours of business-related activities.
    Regarding the likelihood of SHRM’s certifications earning accreditation – A built-in weakness of SHRM’s program is its reliance on a single proprietary competency model for HR. A comprehensive literature review that underpins a certification’s body of knowledge should take into account ALL credible competency models for the HR profession (as HRCI has been doing for years). By limiting itself to its own view of HR competencies, SHRM’s practice analyses will be inherently biased and potentially out of step with the actual practice of HR. I think SHRM is going to have a hard time earning accreditation based on this and its practice of grandfathering so many professionals into its program without testing.

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