Professional Certifications: Yes, They Matter – and They Raise the Bar, Too

By Anne C. Ruddy

The question of whether to obtain an HR certification is a hotly debated topic, with smart HR pros weighing in with points of view that range from “always” to “never,” and “it depends.”

Since HR certifications require money and time, no doubt you would want to research options and assess the potential return on investment. While some HR practitioners pursue certification to improve employment opportunities, others do so to demonstrate proficiency, commitment, professional validation and status.

Regardless of motivation or which certification is right for you, one thing is clear: professional certification elevates the stature of the HR profession as a whole.

83% look for professional certification

“But what’s in it for me, the professional?” you might ask. It’s difficult to quantify the ROI that certification brings in salary terms because there are too many other variables (personal knowledge, skills and abilities, other education, job experience, etc.) that affect a professional’s market value. It is up to you to determine which designation makes the most sense based on your unique circumstances and skill gaps.

To gauge which certifications are worth pursuing, assess the certifying body’s organizational reputation and board credentials. Take a close look at the faculty: are they seasoned professionals currently working in the field who can bring real-world knowledge to the classroom?

Job titles of certified HR professionals and employers’ certification preferences provide clues as well. Data from the WorldatWork Career Center show that 83 percent of employers prefer or ask for professional certification.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that I receive numerous letters from members about the value their WorldatWork training and certification brings them. Daryl Bennett, director of human resources-global operations at BSN Medical, Inc. says that due to certification, he now has a “broader knowledge of HR areas that I would not have gotten in my normal day-to-day work.” Daryl holds three WorldatWork certifications: Certified Compensation Professional®, Certified Benefits Professional® and Global Remuneration Professional®. He is currently pursuing a fourth, the Work-Life Certified Professional® credential.

When WorldatWork introduced the Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) designation in 1975, it was viewed as a true milestone in professionalizing the compensation field. Employers and HR professionals have come to expect that a CCP symbolizes mastery in the challenging field of compensation design and planning.

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The same can be said for the Certified Benefits Professional designation introduced in 1993. The CCP requires passing nine exams; for the CBP, one must pass seven exams. The Global Remuneration Professional requires eight exams. These exams are rigorous and require training and preparation; it takes an average of four years to obtain any one of these certifications, although candidates may take more or less time to finish.

More relevance, deeper competency

When WorldatWork conducted an extensive global analysis of changes in the total rewards profession, it became evident that professionals working in specialty areas such as sales compensation, executive compensation and work-life were seeking more relevance and deeper competency development.

To respond to these needs, WorldatWork introduced three additional certifications: the Work-Life Certified Professional® (WLCP), the Certified Executive Compensation Professional® (CECP) and Certified Sales Compensation Professional (CSCP). Each new certification is designed with objectivity, rigor, professional ethics and discipline, and each requires continuing competence.

WorldatWork Society has granted nearly 23,000 certifications since 1977. Robin Ferracone, executive chair of Farient Advisors, LLC, was one of the first to obtain the CECP designation. She said, “The CECP certification raises the bar for our industry to ensure that those who are working in executive compensation are properly credentialed.”

When it comes to paying people right, gaining the confidence of leaders and stakeholders and playing an increasingly strategic role, we cannot be a profession “by accident,” we must be one “by intention!” Being certified demonstrates your intention to be the best in your profession and raises the bar for all.

Anne C. Ruddy, CCP, is president and CEO of WorldatWork and its affiliate organizations, Alliance for Work-Life Progress and WorldatWork Society of Certified Professionals. Under Anne’s leadership, WorldatWork created the Total Rewards Model being used by the human resources and total rewards departments of some of the largest organizations worldwide.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in economic and political science from the University of Pittsburgh (magna cum laude) and attended the Executive Education Program at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. Contact her at anne.ruddy@worldatwork.org.

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7 Comments on “Professional Certifications: Yes, They Matter – and They Raise the Bar, Too

  1. While I am sure well intended, this article reflects the kind of self-interest bias that virtually blocks advancement to more effective HR practices, hiring heuristics and workforce management paradigms. While it is natural for us to praise our personal choices and the products and services we are paid to represent, such thinking is biased and does not take into account the situation and objectives of the reader. Such was the point of Moneyball and Billy Beane’s now famous departure from the outdated talent-assessment practices that persisted in baseball. Research demonstrates that completed coursework and certificates are comparatively very poor proxies for ability and future performance (i.e., low in validity and reliability). Used for hiring decisions, certificates will unnecessarily disqualify otherwise highly motivated and capable people without the certificate while prompting erroneous assumptions about the ability potential performance of people with the certificate. Certificates are products designed to make money, and not much more.

    1. I received several requests for some published evidence, or lack thereof, regarding the “value” of certifications. Here’s a recently published paper that provides a substantial review of the topic – http://mypage.iu.edu/~haguinis/HRMRinpress2.pdf. If there is no evidence that certifications impact performance, then they at best misleading criteria (i.e., creating false confidence) for selection.

  2. Ann:  You make many valid points, but I find the self promotion of a certification your company offers to be shameful.  Regardless of one’s industry certifications need to be carefully considered, as you say.  You mention that “83% of employers prefer or ask for professional certification”.  I guess this shouldn’t surprise me given the way so many HR professionals see things.  The vast majority of HR pros live in a black and white world, when they need to live in a gray world.  Why does your research show 83% desiring this?  Did you even ask that question?  How many people responded to your question?  What was their level and experience?  

    You must look at the employer that may be wanting the certification and their motives.  Here are a few examples:1. I had an employee that was required to get PHP certified by a client who wanted him to do the project, knew he had the experience required, and knew he would effectively do complete the project.  Someone at the client company made it a requirement that anyone doing this work needed PHP certification.  He was forced to get the certification, which was really unnecessary for him and his skills.  2. As a board member for the ICF Denver, I see this conversation regularly.  There are many coaching certifications.  Which do you choose?  Which is best?  I’m not certified and have no plans to get certified.  That hasn’t affected my business.3. Certification doesn’t directly indicate if an individual can actually do the job effectively.  It only maintains that the individual has a basic level of knowledge.  Having knowledge and knowing how to apply it well are distinctly different.  In my former life I was a fitness instructor. I was at a club who wouldn’t let me teach, even though I had received my AFAA certification.  Why?  Because I just wasn’t a good enough instructor, even though I’d passed a certification.4. If I was hiring a recruiter I would not require or prefer certification.  Why?  Because I can learn everything I need to about the person’s skills by asking them hard questions.  If they can’t answer my questions to my satisfaction, they don’t get hired or we hire them and give them the training they need.Thanks for the article.

    1. To be fair to Ann and WorldatWork, her organization is a professional association (not a business, per se), and professional certifications and accreditations is what an organization like hers (or HCI, or SHRM) does. 

      And, although I am not personally familiar with the ins and outs of WorldatWork’s certification process, people I trust — like TLNT contributor Ann Bares — speak pretty highly of it, the rigor it takes to go through the process, and, the ultimate certification. 

      I’ve always found WorldatWork to be open, transparent, and easy-to-work with — unlike other, similar associations in the HR/talent management space. That Ann is touting her association’s efforts over others in the space is not surprising, but like all of these things, smart people should check it out for themselves.

      1. John: Thanks for your comments.  I’m sure her organization is professional.  My issue is with self promotion in this type of forum.  If she was posting on her personal blog, that would be fine.  I don’t think it’s appropriate here.

        1. Very true Carol , i fully agree with you and John , i deal with my reportees in which we have an employee who boasts about certifications and mentions it in his signatures too , but on the ground his knowledge is just so so , without experience , nothing comes easy . The normal belief is that certified individual is a “the ” Master. I disagree.

      2. John, your point is well made (as is Carol’s). Many good companies and even public universities have been drawn into (i.e., adopted, seized) the practice of offering certificates/certifications. That’s what companies do . . . they sell things that people will buy and, at the unregulate consumer level especially, without much if any regard for whether the products are effective, will perform as promoted, or will perform as people hope or expect. Companies continually search for new product opportunities, with no more criteria than if others are selling this kind of product we can too.

        Furthermore, the education and training experienced in acquiring the certificate/certification may or may not create value for the customer, primarily based on whether the knowledge and practices “covered” have been applied and honed into greater capability. What is misleading, wasteful and potentially harmful about certificates/certifications is the promotion and use of such course-taking as a proxy for ability. This is especially true in the context of employee selection, where research shows that claims about these widely promoted and easily acquired (i.e., course-taking without substantial application demonstration) certificates/certifications are overstated, and in fact such claims have virtually no validity or reliability as proxies for performance.

        At most, most certificates/certifications indicate a shared course-taking experience, which may be of some legitimate value to a company. However, more effective selection practice will search for a candidate with more meaningful qualifications (and if the candidate has not taken some courses that binds the company’s practices, then expediently fill this gap upon hiring). 

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