Reflections on the Issue of HR Certification vs. HR Competencies

By Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank

SHRM’s recent certification announcement raises a relatively simple question but a more complex answer: What is the role of certification (vs. competence) in the development of a field?

Many, if not most, professions have some type of certification protocol. Attorneys pass a bar exam; psychologists are licensed after passing a standardized exam; “certified” public accountants (CPAs) pass a knowledge exam, etc. In all these cases, these licensing exams determine the extent to which an individual knows the basic knowledge in the profession.

Certification focuses on knowing the basics and the knowledge and earning the legitimacy to practice. However, certification does not mean competence.

Certification doesn’t guarantee competence

Many attorneys, psychologists, accountants, and others have become certified, but it does not mean that they are competent enough to be successful practitioners. Certification focuses on the past, not the future; on mastering ideas, not application of ideas; on joining a profession, not succeeding in the profession.

HR certification ensures that HR professionals know the body of knowledge (theory and research) that underlies HR. Certification does not imply that an individual is competent. HR professionals could be both incompetent and uncertified; they could be certified, but not competent; not certified but competent, or both certified and competent.

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There are efforts to determine the competences for effective HR professionals. Through the University of Michigan and the RBL Group (primarily with Professors Wayne Brockbank and Dave Ulrich), we have spent 25 years studying (theory, research, and practice) competencies for effective HR professionals.

5 underlying assumptions

Essential to this long term study are some underlying assumptions:

  1. HR competencies are determined less by self report and more by how those competencies are perceived by others and how they impact both the overall reputation or perception of the HR professional and the performance of the business. Leadership studies moved away from self report as the way to determine leadership effectiveness over 40 years ago with the advent of 360 measures. Likewise, HR competencies should be assessed not only by the HR professional but by those who observe the HR professional. In addition these competencies should be seen as predictors of important personal and organization outcomes. We have found some very important differences between how HR professional define their competencies and rate themselves vs. those who observe their work.
  2. There are global HR competencies, but they also may vary by geography, level in the organization, role in the organization, gender, time in role, etc. To fully determine competencies and their impact requires data from multiple sources.
  3. There are exceptional HR professional groups around the world, each working to determine how to help HR professionals be effective. We believe that partnership with these groups will further the profession. Since 1987, we have collaborated with over 15 HR professional associations to define both the overall global HR competencies and unique local requirements for effective HR. In an increasingly complex and global world, collaboration should be the norm more than imposition of one set of expectations from one country to the rest of the world.
  4. HR certifications can be relatively standardized exams determining mastery of the body of knowledge in the field. HR competencies should be evolving models since the competencies for HR professionals change as business requirements change. For example, in the last 5 years, there has been an abundance of work on HR analytics, scorecards, clouds, and data. Underlying these HR skill areas are competencies related to sourcing, interpreting, translating, and using information for improved decision-making. In our 25 years, we have identified about 140 specific competencies every 4 to 5 years that HR professionals should master to be effective. These 140 “be, know, and do” of HR come from regional partners who survey thought leaders in their region and come to a consensus about what determines effective HR professionals. Each 5 years, we change about 40 to 50 of these items, based on the input of the consortium of HR professional groups. HR competencies evolve and their study should focus forward based on global requirements.
  5. We assert that HR competencies do not exist for their own sake. Rather, HR competencies exist to enhance business performance. A major problem with most competency models is that they ask the question, “What are the competencies of HR professionals?” This is the wrong question. The question should be “What are the competencies of HR professionals that have greatest impact business performance? Our statistical analysis of our data over the past 25 years has addressed both of these questions in detail. However, our unique and important contribution is our examination of the latter, “What are the competencies of HR professionals that have greatest impact on business performance?”

Getting the right answer

So, the answer to the appropriate question, “What do I have to be, know, and do, to be an effective HR professional?” is much more than asking HR professionals what they think. It requires partnership of HR professional associations around the world, focusing on outcomes of HR skills, aligning competencies to current and future business conditions, tailoring competencies to specific situations and identifying the competencies that matter most for business performance.

This competency logic is much further along than the basics and historical view of certification.

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group ( a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He studies how organizations build capabilities of leadership, speed, learning, accountability, and talent through leveraging human resources, and has published over 200 articles and book chapters, and over 25 books. His most recent book, with Wayne Brockbank, is the "HR From the Outside In." Dr. Wayne Brockbank is a Clinical Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and partner emeritus of The RBL Group. His research, consulting and teaching made important contributions to strategic human resource management strategy and implementation, and international business. He is also the author of four books including "The HR Value Proposition" with Dave Ulrich.


8 Comments on “Reflections on the Issue of HR Certification vs. HR Competencies

  1. Thank you for your very thoughtful reflection on the topic of HR Certification vs. Competencies. I resonate with your comments about the need for collaboration. This is critical for everything we do in our field.

  2. I appreciate your perspectives on this subject, and all the work you have done over the past quarter century to help improve HR practice. I have a couple of observations on certification as it relates to HR competence, and I should preface those observations by stating that I believe the current and historical PHR and SPHR certs have done little, if anything, to improve the practice of HR or the way it is viewed by others. Nor do I believe that future certification efforts will fare any better. Frankly, I don’t think the practice of HR lends itself to a certification process, which may be one reason why HR credibility continues to deteriorate even though more and more professionals are getting certs.

    The statement you made early in your post says it all: “Certification focuses on the past, not the future; on mastering ideas, not application of ideas; on joining a profession, not succeeding in the profession”.

    This is exactly why HR has mostly failed in attempting to influence organizational behavior or direction. Corporate executives have been crying for help in dealing with a rapidly changing marketplace and getting/developing the talent necessary to meet the needs of the future. Technology advances, globalization, generational realities; the business world is becoming more complex, and applying old solutions to new challenges ain’t gonna get it! Agility, intelligence, awareness, creativity, risk tolerance, bias for action; these are some of the attributes required for an HR leader to succeed in navigating the constantly evolving marketplace.

    With all due respect to my HR brothers and sisters out there, the problem is the reflection in the mirror. HR done well is an extremely difficult task. HR people need help in understanding where their true value lies, and what their job really entails. Yet most CHRO’s don’t seem to know how to do that, or they don’t know what the job is either; if they did, HR credibility would be moving in a different direction. But it’s not, and no amount of certification seems to have made any difference.

    I’ve met you a couple of times, many years ago, at HR functions in Atlanta where you were a featured speaker. I thoroughly enjoyed your presentations, and found them relevant and thought provoking. You’ve done some profoundly important work, and deserve all the accolades received. If anyone can crack the HR credibility nutt it is you, and I wish you nothing but the very best!

    1. you have supported my point. HR competence (not certification) is very difficult and tied to the requirements of the specific position, the business, and the skills of the individual. Competencies change over time as well. We have worked on this for 25 years and the competencies for HR professionals keep evolving. And, competencies are defined by the receiver more than the giver (HR person)

  3. The field of HR is very fluid, as is business, so flexibility and the ability to deal with all the shades of gray is extremely important. Personally I have never felt the PHR/SPHR was of value to me even though I have a CCP designation and have facilitated a number of these
    certification classes. It felt to me that the PHR and SPHR was more of a money grab than anything else and was for regurgitation of facts from the past rather than how to deal with the present and being the strategic partner HR should be.

  4. Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank have done it again! They have made the complex simple and have shown that both HRCI and SHRM haven’t got it right as yet. I’ve been following you guys since Dave’s “HR Champions”, and I think you’ve got it right. You’re the future of HR. Keep up the great work you’re doing for the discipline!

  5. Thank you to Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank for raising this critical question: What is the role of certification (vs. competence) in the development of a field? We suggest the question raised is slightly different – What is the role of certification AND competence in the development of a field? Certification and competence go hand-in-hand, if designed to do so. Certification is the designation earned by a person to assure the public (and employers) that they have the qualifications necessary to perform their job. A competency model (or framework of competencies) define the characteristics needed for successful performance in a particular field and SHOULD be part of certification. A competency-based certification covers more than just the
    “basic” knowledge that HR professionals need. It includes the behaviors key to success exhibited through skills and abilities of HR professionals to meet complex job demands by drawing on all of their resources including knowledge, skills, and abilities in a given context.

    We agree that certification does not always mean competence but certification properly designed can assess for competence. Examples of this include testing for the teamwork competencies of physicians or assessing the classroom management competencies of teachers. There’s been an incredible growth in certifications for all
    professions in recent years – and for good reasons: if done well, certifications help to advance the profession; certifications can be a signal to potential employers; and they can be aspirational for those developing their skills in a profession to name a few. Furthermore,

    · A competency based certification involves testing knowledge, skills, attitudes needed to perform key behaviors tied to effective performance. Mastery of a body of
    knowledge is important, though no longer sufficient to demonstrate competence
    in HR or most professions.

    · An HR competency is observable and measureable. As a result, effective assessments can be developed to evaluate the HR profession.

    · Passing a certification exam based on an HR competency model demonstrates that the HR professional can behave in the role in necessary ways rather than just comprehend or know a body of knowledge.

    · Many certification exams test recognition and recall of facts or require interpretations to answer questions. A true competency based exam requires the HR professional to process information in a particular situation and relate it to a different situation from which they may have learned the concept.

    Certification has found its way into almost every industry for a reason: It helps advance the profession. Certifications are portable and competencies that an individual possesses are portable. SHRM has invested significant resources of time, effort, money and credibility around the world to partner with other HR associations to lead and engage in discussions about the profession. Many researchers have paved the way for the HR profession to be accepting of the concept of competencies for effective HR practice. We start with this foundation. Much more is known about the HR profession today than decades ago and similarly, much more is known about how to build and assess competencies. As the world’s largest
    HR Professional Society, SHRM is committed to the advancement and evolution of
    the HR profession.

    We noted 5 underlying assumptions highlighted in a previous article that may not have provided a full explanation of the important issues.

    1. We can all agree that HR competencies are not determined solely by self-report, but to determine them primarily by perception of others would be a mistake as well. Competencies should be derived by analyzing the outcomes and behaviors of individuals in real situations; some of this may be perception but much of it is found in specific outcomes like the resolution of problems or the critical evaluation of metrics and decisions. Advancements in assessment methodologies now allow us to test for these skills and abilities.

    2. We agree that there will be some variation by geography and level in the organization – this is why the SHRM competency model looked at four distinct levels (entry, mid, senior, executive), conducted global research and analyzed the data by organization size. The results of a rigorous criterion validation study indicate that a higher level of proficiency on the SHRM competencies is related to higher levels of job performance. In other words, employees who have more developed
    competencies are viewed by supervisors as performing at a higher level on the

    3. There are exceptional HR professional groups around the world all working to determine how to help HR professionals be effective and SHRM enjoys a strong collaborative relationship with most of these groups through its role as the Secretariat to the World Federation of Personnel Management Associations (WFPMA); through our offices and outreach efforts in China, India, UAE, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, the list of SHRM collaborative research efforts is quite extensive and growing each year. Data from multiple sources is critical as is the quality and credibility of the data.

    4. SHRM believes that HR certifications can and should be standardized but this does not mean that they must be static. Over time the behavioral and technical competencies identified in the SHRM Competency model and in the SHRM Certification will evolve with the continuing research and validation work that must go into preserving a credible certification and credible Body of Certification and Knowledge (BoCK).

    5. SHRM believes that HR competencies do not exist solely for their own sake and the development of the SHRM Competency model and more recent SHRM Certification has not been developed in a vacuum of, “what are the competencies of HR professionals”. The context is and must be the business environment and more to the point business challenges for which HR professionals must add strategic value to the organization – both directly and indirectly through HR initiatives.

    In the past, one assumption made throughout the bodies of your work on competencies was that they can be assessed only (or best) through self-report and supervisory performance data. We think this is too narrow a view of assessment and testing. Today, employers the world over use interviews, situational judgment tests, work samples, and more (Hunter and Schmidt, 1990; Schmidt et al., 2010) to
    assess competencies for every purpose from professional development to employee selection. SHRM asks the question—if we can hire someone based upon
    assessments of their competencies, why can’t we test their competencies to
    certify their standing as a proficient HR professional? The worlds of testing, employee selection, and educational testing have evolved beyond your standard paper-and-pencil intelligence testing. The certification world has too and the HR profession must evolve as well!

    The SHRM Certification is not about HR Certification vs. HR Competencies – it is about adding competencies to certification. It is about the advancing the HR profession and pulling what we know from research and conversations with
    HR practitioners from around the world into a meaningful and comprehensive
    framework that is dynamic to accommodate changes in the profession and in the
    business environment. It is much more than asking HR professionals what
    they think – it is about listening, cataloguing and documenting how they behave
    in given situations to most effectively perform the requirements of their jobs to positively impact business outcomes and doing so continuously over time. The HR profession is young and always evolving and the comprehensive HR Competency Model and a certification based on that model provides a framework for HR professionals at all levels to map the skills, and abilities they need to be able to do to adapt to a changing business environment. Business needs effective HR practice and the HR profession is evolving and preparing for the future with a focus on
    certification and competencies. The HR profession has long had critics, but
    supporters have always looked forward and fostered the evolution needed to get
    the profession where it is today. Moving to a competency based certification is another step and surely many more steps will follow, if we embrace the inevitability of change and the opportunities it presents.

  6. The UK CIPD actually has quite a nice HR competency “wheel” framework (10 professional areas, 8 behaviors).

    Of course, CIPD has had certification exams long before SHRM.

    I do not which came first, but like the accountancy profession, I think professional bodies stand to gain if they engage in some “coopetition” and cooperate in such areas as developing competencies once in a while, rather than compete all the time in all areas and adopt the not-invented-here mentality.

  7. Great article from Ulrich and Brockbank with necessary remarks on HR certification supplemented by valid comments. I fully agree that HR certification is not sufficient to fulfill requirements for HR professionals in today’s demanding business reality. I suggest further reflections on broadening HR competences into HR capabilities.

    Specific HR capabilities for a company will rely on the mindset required for a HR team in a particular organization and business environment. Specific behaviors are associated with each HR capability covering a range of HR disciplines.

    To master preferred HR capabilities for a specific company certain HR competencies should be in place followed by individual will and successful application of critical HR competencies. Mindset, will, behavior and ability to apply HR competencies cannot be covered by a HR certification.

    I am sorry to see too many smart HR professionals with high degrees and comprehensive list of certifications practice poor business-driven HR and completely lacking grip when working with line of business.

    Few HR coworkers have the courage to discuss lack of business focus with their smart HR colleagues due to their theoretic gravity in the HR field. Only an external advisor like myself may point out the huge lack between linking HR theories and HR methods with business needs and result based interaction with business leaders.

    Translating and publishing “HR From the Outside In” into Danish (the book on RBL Group’s latest HR competency research study) provided me a solid insight of six HR roles and competencies for the future. Although the six HR competency domains are explained very thoroughly, it is necessary to interpret the HR competencies into the relevant business context and integrate with company specific HR capabilities to make business impact.

    Right mindset and associated behavior is of outmost importance in order to implement and anchor HR competencies leading to business impact (“be, know and do”). Certification even in these well-defined six HR competencies (or any other HR competencies) would not guarantee the ability of HR professionals to contribute to business results.

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