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Assessing SHRM's Move into Certifications

SHRM's sudden and surprise announcement that it was launching a new HR certification initiative based on competencies is raising a considerable number of questions about the future of accreditation.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
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SHRM has sent shock waves through the HR world in recent days. As you've no doubt heard, the Alexandria, Va.-based organization announced on May 12 that it would begin offering an HR certification program in mid-2015, independent of the Human Resource Certification Institute, the organization SHRM has partnered with for nearly 40 years to offer HR certification.

The reverberations are still being felt, with many observers left confused by SHRM's decision to branch out and offer its own program, based on its own competency model -- emphasizing behaviors that demonstrate proficiency, such as leadership, communication and ethics -- as opposed to HRCI >'s more knowledge-based program.  

No one appears to be more perplexed by the move than < HRCI >, which has expressed its disappointment with not being included in the development of this certification.

< HRCI > did not respond to HRE's requests for comment. But, in a statement, Clarissa Peterson, chair of the HR Certification Institute board of directors, asserts that "< HRCI > was not given any notice about [the] announcement of a new certification, nor [SHRM's] plans to phase out and discontinue test prep, nor their outreach to grandfather in our certifications into their unnamed and undefined 'competency-based certification for human resource professionals.'"

Meanwhile, non-certified HR professionals could be left unsure as to which certification path to follow, while the certified may be left to wonder if their < HRCI >-sponsored certifications will be discontinued. 

Some have called SHRM's decision to launch its own certification program a strictly money-driven move, while others question SHRM's motivation for creating a test with a strictly competency-based focus.

"[SHRM says] members want a whole new test based on competencies, which is seriously questioned," says Mike Losey, HR consultant, past-president CEO of SHRM, and member of the < HRCI > board of directors.

"The whole essence of [certification] tests is balance and equity," says Losey. "Will the new [SHRM] test be fair? Will those who take test and do well actually know more? HR proficiency requires knowledge, and it also requires skill and certain behaviors. To suggest that knowledge is out and competencies are in, that's going too far."

For its part, SHRM says the new, competency-based program was borne out of a need for a "more robust" certification tool for HR professionals.

That's according to Bette Francis, SHRM board chair and vice president and director of human resources at Wilmington, Del.-based Wilmington Trust.

In a May 20 media webcast, Francis described the new program as "the first [to be] focused on teaching the practical information HR professionals need to excel in their careers today, including skills, knowledge and competencies."

"The difference between this certification and current certifications on the market is that current certifications validate knowledge -- that you have read a book and can regurgitate that knowledge," added Henry G. Jackson, SHRM president and CEO.

"When you look at the competencies we'll be testing on -- communication skills, the ability to consult with peers, critical evaluation [skills], etc. -- all of these competencies are clearly needed behaviors in order for [HR professionals] to reach their goals," he continued. "That's what makes this credential program much better than anything else on the market. We're teasing out and certifying that HR pros have mastery of these behaviors."

With regard to < HRCI >'s claim that it was not aware SHRM was launching its own certification, Jackson told HRE that SHRM was "puzzled by that statement," noting the organization had "extensive discussions" with < HRCI > during the last five months, and "repeatedly communicated our desire to move forward in the development of a certification that included competencies, as well as our desire that they join us in this effort.

"Unfortunately, it became increasingly clear from < HRCI >'s actions that they did not intend to join SHRM in this effort. The SHRM board felt strongly that we could not delay this much-needed project any longer," he says, adding that SHRM is "always willing to discuss ways in which organizations can work together for the betterment of the HR profession."

With the proposed SHRM certification program still in development, it's difficult to gauge its potential impact on the HR profession, and how HR professionals seeking certification will be affected. SHRM has been releasing details in the two weeks since the initial announcement.  

For example, SHRM has indicated that all HR professionals holding a PHR, SPHR, GPHR, HRBP or HRMP certification will be eligible for the new SHRM certification on January 1, 2015, by taking an online tutorial.

In addition, SHRM will allow those with other recognized HR generalist certifications to convert to the new credential free of charge from Jan. 1, 2015 through Dec. 31, 2015. Doing so requires showing documentation that the certification is current, signing the SHRM code of ethics and completing an online educational module on HR competencies. The yet-unnamed certification will be valid for three years before recertification credits must be resubmitted for approval. HR practitioners seeking certification for the first time can apply for the exam beginning Jan. 1, 2015, with the first exam window of the new certification tentatively scheduled for mid-2015.

Many specifics remain to be fleshed out, of course. So, looking ahead, what does the new certification mean for HR professionals?

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That's tough to say. But, at the moment, "it means confusion, until more information is forthcoming from SHRM, and the details are straightened out in the next few months," says Matthew J. Stollak, assistant professor of business administration at De Pere, Wis.-based St. Norbert College, member of St. Norbert's SHRM chapter, and author of the "True Faith HR" blog.

"Currently, certified professionals will have to decide whether to keep their current designation, transition to the new, yet-unnamed SHRM certification, or keep both. Individuals seeking certification are unsure whether to take the PHR/SPHR, [and are] deciding whether to wait and see how the new SHRM certification turns out."

At the HR executive level, however, the new program's development "should have minimal impact" in the long run, says Stollak.

"Most organizations will not turn down a competent and seasoned HR professional with an M.B.A. or master's [degree] in HR, and is not currently certified."

Senior executives entrenched at large firms certainly won't be lining up to take the new SHRM exam, adds Losey. "Why risk taking the test, being tested on their knowledge, and [possibly] fail?"

That said, "a lot of these very senior HR people respect someone who has a certification, and may go so far as to encourage or even require" an HR professional to earn certification in order to be hired for their human resource teams, according to Losey.

Ultimately, it seems SHRM perhaps stands to gain the most from this apparent split -- at least financially -- but the new program may prove to be a bit of a double-edged sword, says Stollak.

"SHRM may both benefit the most and be the most adversely impacted," he says. "On the positive end, SHRM benefits from capturing the certification dollars that go to < HRCI >. On the other hand -- given the poor rollout and confusion regarding the new certification, SHRM [is already seeing] its stature take a PR hit."

SHRM volunteers find themselves in limbo as well.

"As many SHRM professional chapters and state councils are volunteer-run, they are trying to figure out what is going on," says Stollak. "Many are already planning programming for 2015, and this kerfuffle leaves them unsure where they stand. Given that SHRM professional chapter meeting attendance is driven by recertification credits, those volunteers may have to apply to both < HRCI > and SHRM for appropriate coverage."

Those taking the SHRM certification exam may suffer the most -- at least in the short term, adds Losey, noting that the new exam may not truly gauge an HR professional's proficiency to the same extent as the < HRCI > exam.

"There's a great risk that it will be inferior to the current [< HRCI >] product," he says. "It will take a long time to get [the SHRM certification program] up to the standard that < HRCI has set."


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