Is Becoming PHR or SPHR Certified Critical?

Editors Note: Today’s guest post is brought to you by Rich DeMatteo. He is a Philadelphia area HR/Staffing professional with experience in both agency and corporate recruiting. Rich runs Corn On The Job, a job search, recruiting, and HR blog. Connect with him through Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, or subscribe to his blog.

Why is it necessary for HR professionals to attain their PHR/SPHR Certification?

A) To gain promotion beyond entry level HR positions with their current company

B) To gain an advantage over other job seekers

C) Proof of having the knowledge, experience, and expertise needed to perform a high-level HR role

D) It isn’t

Just like in most questions found on the PHR/SPHR exam, the one above agonizingly provides more than one great answer. Strong cases can be made for A, B, and C, while D is most likely crossed out by test-takers. Lets analyze the answers a bit further and see what happens.

D) It isn’t

Many see this as the one certain wrong answer, but a handful of people feel strongly about the certifications lack of importance. The VP of HR at my previous company would select “D” as the best answer if I were to ask him. He believes the PHR/SPHR does very little in proving someone has the necessary skills to be a high performing HR professional. Even if this is true, I feel there are other reasons certifications can be important for HR folks.

My answer is not “D”.

C) Proof of having the knowledge and expertise needed to perform a high-level HR role

Studying/preparing for one of these bad boys is far from a joke. Even HR pro’s with 10+ years of experience could always use a refresher course, and it appears that most people DO sign up for some form of preparation. A very popular method is buying and reading the SHRM Learning System books, or taking a prep-course that uses these books.

Unless new information is applied in their every day job, I would assume that most new knowledge isn’t retained for long. Therefore, I don’t believe that passing the PHR or SPHR is proof of expertise. No offense to the certified experts out there. What I’m trying to say is that anyone can go through a prep course and cram/retain the information long enough to help them pass the exam. I’m sure total bozo’s have breezed through the exam and have turned out to be a bust in the workplace.

My answer is not “C”.

B) To gain an advantage over other job seekers

Times are tough and competition for work is extremely high. Job seekers need to gain an advantage wherever they can, and a certification may just be the trick. Also, more and more job descriptions prefer or require candidates to already possess the certification. This means PHR/SPHR certified job seekers boost their chances and hop over some of their competition.

Nothing replaces solid connections through networking, relevant experience, and solid interviewing skills, but when hiring managers won’t be complaining when they notice the candidate is certified.

I’m not quite ready to make my choice, but “B” is looking strong!

A) To gain promotion beyond entry level HR positions with their current company

From what I’ve seen and experienced, when a worker is a solid performer, the company is willing to bend a few rules and qualifications to get them promoted. Maybe some organizations are strict on their requirements, but I just don’t see that happening everywhere.

I’m sure some people might answer “A”, but I’m not.

What is my answer?

I’m going with “B” as my final answer. I feel that the main reason people should look to become certified is to distinguish themselves as better candidates. Like I’ve mentioned, I don’t see a PHR/SPHR certification as proof that someone is an expert, but with so many positions making it a requirement, it seems like HR professionals can be expected to feel forced into handed over a great deal of time and money in exchange for a shiny new certification.

What is your answer?

You may disagree with me, and if so, I want to hear your reasons. If you’ve become PHR or SPHR certified, how has it helped you in your career?


  1. I like B too. When I got mine in 2002, I used it as a way to get a lot of HR knowledge quickly. Now, I view it as a “preferred” skill should I ever move back into an HR department.

  2. Hi Kari, how did you study and prepare for the exam? Did you retain a lot of the information? Thanks for the comment!

  3. It was B for me at the time. If I was not certified and decided today that I wanted to take the exam, it would be for reason C (in conjunction with some snazzy work performance).

    Regarding reason D, I’ve always said that I know that the certification doesn’t prove competency in a concrete way, but it does have some weight with people outside the profession. While people inside know that it is nice-but-not-extremely-valuable, outsiders may not realize that.

  4. Hi Rich,

    I took an 11-week prep class through Seattle Research Partners at Seattle Pacific University. Through the class I met others studying for both exams and we met weekly to study and give each other test questions. All of us passed our respective exams.

    Did I retain a lot of it? Hmmm….much of it, yes. But, I don’t think that’s as critical as knowing where to find it once you’ve forgotten. ; )

  5. @Ben – Thanks for the comment. A lot of my pain with this was probably because my graduate school forced it on us. I was fortunate to have 4 years experience and the drive to want to complete, but not EVERYONE in my program feels that way.

    Good points about answer D! Also, I’ll be sure to mention “Rock the PHR” to friends and colleagues!

    @Kari – I agree with you on your comment about ‘knowing where to find it…’ I used the SHRM learning system and I have a feeling the 6 ridiculously sized books will come in handy some day.

  6. I would be between B & D. Many HR professionals I know do not have the certification but if they had to be looked at and it was between them and a person who was certified, they would wish that they had. From what I have heard though is that not many request the certification unless it is an HR organization. If I am wrong I’d like to know!

  7. I took and passed the PHR exam a couple of years ago and I agree that the answer is B. I think it can be looked at similar to the “is a college degree necessary?” question. For many positions it’s not necessary, but given two candidates with equal experience, who both interviewed well, the college degree (or PHR/SPHR) can give one candidate a little extra boost.

    I also agree that people outside the HR profession view the PHR/SPHR more highly than people inside the profession.

    Finally, I think that obtaining your certification does show a certain amount of dedication to the field of HR in general because it isn’t the easiest exam to take an pass. By showing you have, you’ve demonstrated a willingness to dedicate time and resources towards forwarding your career.

    And since you asked Kari about studying methods, I’ll tell you mine: I self-studied, took two exams that came with a PHR/SPHR book I purchased (not part of SHRM learning system) and took the two HRCI practice exams.

  8. @benjamin – Regarding your thoughts on if its just HR organizations. I’m not sure. I think I see it as a “preferred” for at least half of the mid to senior level HR positions I see. Let’s say a job requires 5 years experience, and a PHR/SPHR certification. Let’s assume there are two candidates. Candidate A has 9 years experience and no certification. Candidate B has 5 years experience and DOES have a certification. In that situation I think I’d go with the experience.

    I’m a believer in that more hands on experience will become more valuable. The certification knowledge can be researched in critical situations. Having someone certified just means that information is readily available (if they haven’t forgot it).

    I still think the answer is B, but I’ve worked with people and seen people who go on to be “top dog” and never had the cert. At the end of the day, getting a cert simply can’t hurt!

  9. @erin – I agree with you and Benjamin on how its seen from outside of HR. I’m sure the fine HR folks at SHRM may disagree…

    I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure if I passed. When the exam was over, I spent 3 minutes shaking as I took a quick survey about how I felt of the process. When the screen shouted “pass” i almost jumped. It was definitely hard, and some of the questions are downright cruel. Why can’t the questions just be in english?

    Do you find that you still remember the information? Do you rely on the books to go back in and grab the info from time to time?

  10. I vote ‘D’. The test to pass the certification seems like just a lot of rote memorization than you don’t necessarily even recall post-test. In my 10+ years in HR, I haven’t seen any trends between those that have the certification and those that do not have it in terms of knowledge base. I wish that it were a more valuable certification or more rigorous so that it were meaningful to the profession. The CCP/CEBS is more rigorous rather than the PHR/SPHR in terms of learning and building on learning, IMO. But I figure that maybe the PHR/SPHR will evolve over time. As a side note, I actually do have my SPHR, but I got it in the 2001 economic slump in the hopes that it would help find a job. My skill set differentiated me much more than the SPHR did.

  11. @rich – I don’t remember much of anything that I didn’t already know and I haven’t referred back to my study materials too many times in the years since I took the test, which would indicate to me that much of the knowledge isn’t all that practical.

  12. @shana Interesting take on how your skill set proved to be much more valuable than the certification. That is how I see it happening, and how I would value candidates when making decisions.

    @erin Come on, you mean to tell me that you don’t need to recite the Norris-Laguardia Act on a daily basis? :o)

  13. Dawn Hrdlica @dawnHRrocks

    December 16, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    You know—there is a lot LOT of of talk about the validity of the PHR/SPHR.

    So many haters—I am not. There I said it…I’m’ glad I have mine.

    a) I haven’t seen an HR job worth its salt without it as a criteria in a LONG time. In this economy, any edge over others is good.

    b) True, you may not retain info from the test the rest of your career—but you do have to keep up your skills on some level to remain certified. Getting HRCI credits throughout the year does give some that extra push to get off the couch and go learn something besides how to program your new phone.

    c) I would never hire a lawyer if he hadn’t passed the bar—-same with HR creds.

    d) I like overachievers—shows some depth of committment. Even if it is small.
    I’m not so worried about retention of knowledge from the test

    e) I still think it separates HR rockstars from others. There are still so, so many HR pros without certification—if you got it, then flaunt it.

  14. Dawn – thanks for commenting.

    I think I like what you said in D best. “I’m not worried about retention of knowledge from the test.” I know personally, I’m worried about the retention a little. I want to make sure that if one day I get a job for my experience and certification, I can live up to the expectations.

    As it was talked about earlier, maybe the content on the PHR isn’t always relevant to the job, which happens often, but I would love if I’m able to reach in my brain and pull out this information whenever I’d like, even if its 2 years from now.

  15. How about this:

    E) Demonstrates a level of commitment to career development beyond the bare minimum.

    Dawn makes this point when she talks about overachievers. The test is evidence of personal commitment. The test in and of itself is not necessarily an advantage, but if framed properly—and especially if you can show that you didn’t just “study for the test” but used prep time to network, dive into areas of HR that are new for you, and learn about what’s out there beyond your current job—the you’ve got it.

  16. Good points Eric, but I still think B is the way I’d answer it. I’m not sure many people take the cert to prove they are committed to their career, but I think it’s a valid point.

    My prep-course started in September and ended in December. I was in a room of 20-25 HR pros from all areas of HR, and it surely was a networking opportunity. Also, being as I’ve primarily only worked in staffing/recruiting I definitely was able to learn about some areas I normally won’t touch on.

    But, along with this being a requirement for me to complete my Masters, my real motivation was to help set me apart from other job seekers in the future, if I’m ever put in that spot.

  17. Oh, and Jason, I somehow called you Eric. Sorry about that!

  18. I have to say I didn’t retain most of what I learned (or was tested on) in college either. But I still think obtaining a degree was a worthwhile exercise!

    I first took a PHR preparation class when I ‘fell into’ an HR role; I wanted to be very clear about the body of knowledge I was expected to master (even if some of the details were soon forgotten). At the time, I didn’t even end up testing.

    When I did test years later, it was for personal satisfaction, not because I thought I needed it to advance.

    Now, I am contemplating taking the SPHR and again, it’s mostly personal satisfaction because my position doesn’t require certification and I have no desire to jump ship. It’s an accomplishment, like running an 8K, writing a book, or climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro would be.

    When I was looking for a my first exempt level HR report, I definitely looked for PHR or PHR aspirations. It suggested the person was serious about HR as a career, and had a broad introduction to the knowledge base.

  19. Thanks for your input on this, Krista. Interesting to see how you only looked at someone who had a PHR or wanted to go for it soon. Would love to hear how many candidates you turned away.

  20. Rich,
    Here is why I took the exam:
    Previous to getting it, when I was between jobs, I had the experience–but I was considered a “B” candidate because of my education. I’m one of the folks who fell into HR. My degree is in History. “A” candidates were those with business degrees and experience.
    I’m glad I did it because I really believe it helped me land a couple of key jobs that has brought me to this point now…in a HR role I love.
    Lastly, I am going with E as part of my answer, because the test is hard. It has a reputation as hard. It does show that you are committed to learning about the profession. It used to be that once you past the test, you were a PHR for life. Now you have to recertify. I am going to recertify again for the second time next year. To receive the proper credits, you have to continue to express your commitment to the profession. If you want to keep it, you have to continue to learn.
    The interesting thing about the certification is the debate. I see both sides. For me, I’m glad I got it. I’m proud of it. It works for me. At the end of the day that’s all that matters.

  21. Paul, thanks for adding your thoughts. In the end, if it works for you, and you are happy then that’s all there is to it. Many HR pro’s will chose it’s not for them, and that is their choice. I was forced to take it, I had no choice. I’m not sure which route I would have gone, but I am happy it’s over.

    The idea of having to recertify kind of bugs me. I guess in a couple years I may have to do that as well.

  22. Very interesting discussion but I have to say…I don’t know many outside of HR who know or care what SPHR or PHR even stands for or means…other than that you are probably a member of SHRM and took one of their courses.

    I think perhaps in gov’t or recruiting with lots of regulations that may not be true – but having marketed & sold into the HR/recruiting industry for 6 years now…it’s a language I and many I know simply don’t speak or understand.

  23. So Rich,

    If I’m understanding you right, someone should give SHRM their hard-earned money and study rigorously for a test just so they can tack a few letters after their name and increase their likelihood of getting hired?

    And to keep those fancy letters, they need to give SHRM more of their money every few years to stay certified? I’m not buying it!

    I get the reality: Some people value the letters tacked after the name. But a lot of people also value blindly following the crowd. That doesn’t make doing so a good business decision.

  24. Chris – thanks for your harsh, and real comment. Mr. Ben Eubanks was just telling me how nice of a guy you were, and then you blast me. But, I actually do enjoy the comment and I’m glad you shared your real opinion.

    I was forced to pass the PHR. Without passing, I wouldn’t be permitted to graduate from Villanovas Human Resources Development Masters program. If you knew what I paid to prepare/pass the test you’d vomit all over your own face.

    The mere point of this post was to discuss some critical points to it, and how it can help someone. Many successful HR folks don’t need this cert, but apparently I was told I DID need it.

    Please, carry on your life without the cert. If I wasn’t forced to go through with it, I’m not sure if/when I would have decided to take it.

    Thanks again for the comment :o)

  25. Chris – thanks for your harsh, and real comment. Mr. Ben Eubanks was just telling me how nice of a guy you were, and then you blast me. But, I actually do enjoy the comment and I’m glad you shared your real opinion.

    I was forced to pass the PHR. Without passing, I wouldn’t be permitted to graduate from Villanovas Human Resources Development Masters program. If you knew what I paid to prepare/pass the test you’d vomit all over your own face.

    The point of this post was to discuss some critical points to it, and how it can help someone. Many successful HR folks don’t need this cert, but apparently I was told I DID need it.

    Please, carry on your life without the cert. If I wasn’t forced to go through with it, I’m not sure if/when I would have decided to take it.

    Thanks again for the comment :o)

  26. They actually forced you to take it?? That’s ridiculous!

    And from what I’ve heard, people who have their PHR do often feel as though more opportunities open up for them. I just can’t justify giving SHRM any more of my hard earned money because they still have a monopoly of thought on far too many HR professionals.

    As an aside – I love your writing style! I’m glad you wrote this guest post – I’m not sure I would have found your blog otherwise.



  27. @Leanne – A lot of people agree with your perspective. Also, probably what I learned most was surrounding legislation. This is where it may definitely help in gov’t

    @chris – Yep, can you believe it? It’s a strong HR program here in Philly, and ‘Nova is a great school, but I was lucky enough to have 4 years of experience. Many of the young bucks are coming in straight from undegrad and finish the program in a year and a half. All of my recruiting has been in staffing/recruiting so I really did need to learn a lot of the information.

    Thanks for the nice words. Really appreciate that, and glad we have connected

  28. I guess it’s just one more step, just like a lawyer passing a bar.

  29. Okay, I’ve read all the posts and have to say my answer is B. As, like many others, I fell into the HR realm and fell in love with it. I have a passion for this career of mine as an HR professional. I have a little over 9 years experience with most of my time within employee relations, and have taken the PHR exam twice and did not pass the test. Mind you neither of the jobs I was in when I took the exam required the certification as much as it was preferred.

    I do question the validity of this exam as I also know a friend who just took the SPHR exam and passed it! Mind you this individual has zero HR experience! So my question is, what’s the real reason this PHR/SPHR exam was created? To prove your know the “body of knowledge” that indicates you are well versed in HR, or to learn what you need to learn to sit for four hours and succeed?

    With regards to getting off the couch and somewhat being forced to continue learning more and more about your career field, how much more can one learn from a book or class to be considered the best of the best?

    I for one, will not take the exam again, as I truly do not believe the PHR/SPHR sets me apart from other professionals who do have the certification. I would really hate to think SHRM or HRCI truly believes those who have certification are better professionals than those who just have the experience. I would really like to see the data/results of who passed and who hasn’t and how their formal education correlates to the success/failure rate. For instance, who passed with a master degree, who passed with a bachelor and how many years of experience in the field.

  30. There have been a lot of great comments. One however, that I feel is missing is that as an HR Manager, Director or VP it shows your staff that you too are committed to continual learning. I obtained both my MBA and SPHR after 10 years in the field, this has helped differentiate me in my career (I moved from a Generalist to a Sr. Generalist to a Manager to a Director), I believe more importantly the SPHR has kept me grounded in offering HR educational opportunities for the staff that report to me. In order to be a business partner, I believe one must continually be learning, adapting and growing. Forcing yourself to take 60 continuing Ed credits every three years and encouraging your staff to do it as well, keeps a high level HR executive grounded in what is happening below the clouds.

  31. williamjacobs

    April 1, 2013 at 5:45 am

    If the answer is “B”, that suggests that there are so MANY hr folk clawing for promotions that a heavy investment of time, energy, and maybe money to obtain a dubious qualification is NECESSARY to land that promotion.

    The answer is “E”: get into a different line of work where there are more options to distinguish yourself and find a niche.

  32. @pam NO, having your HR certificate is absolutely nothing like a lawyer passing the Bar exam. Lawyers NEED to pass the Bar to practice law but HR professionals don’t need to have a PHR to work as a HR professional. PHR is rarely required but mostly preferred.

  33. I agree with Chris and as a veteran HR professional I’ve worked my way up from a rep to a director all with a BA in Communications. Shelling out thousands of dollars for prep courses, then hundreds of dollars to take the test, then more money to stay certified is ridiculous! To each their own though, if you feel it will help you, then go right ahead and spend the money and time but believe me, I’ve seen thousands of candidates in my almost 20 years of HR experience and I rarely ran into a resume that had PHR/SPHR on it. It almost seems like a scam to me.

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