Like every industry, HR has different types of certifications. Let’s break down the basics around why some people get certifications and if they’re helpful to your career. We’ll also give details on two of the most common certifications: PHR and SPHR.

Poor HR. Often picked on and maligned in pop culture (remember Toby from The Office?), and sometimes even used as a threat, ‘Don’t make me call HR on you.’

Human Resources, at its core, is all about people. And people are what make up every single company on the planet. So, regardless of what TV thinks, HR is a vital function of any company making it a solid career choice for the HR-minded individuals.

What do HR professionals do outside of hiring or firing people?

Most people don’t realize that HR professionals play a role in developing and maintaining a company’s culture. This spans from working across teams to understand what they’re looking for in a potential hire, recruiting and screening candidates, employee development and training, even throwing parties (yes, HR can party).

What are the types of jobs people in HR actually have?

There are all kinds of different titles and areas for HR professionals. Small or mid-sized companies usually look for generalists, so your title might be HR Manager. Many go into HR specializations like training, recruiting, or employee relations. There’s even a top-level HR position; the Chief Human Resources Officer or CHRO.

Am I required to get a certification in order to work in HR?

No. Certifications are not required. It’s not uncommon for director or c-suite level positions to prefer an MBA, but there is no requirement like there is in the medical or law profession. In 2018, a Payscale survey of roughly 100,000 HR professionals found that about 34% had a certification, and over half of HR VPs and CHROs have certifications.

How do I decide if I should get a certification?

Certifications cost money and time, and there is no guarantee that gaining your certification will get you a job. To keep your certification valid, you must complete continuing education every few years. However, all things being equal, a certification will help you stand out among your fellow job seekers. As noted above, if you’re planning to become a director-level HR person or higher, certifications are common among this group.

Acquiring a certification shows you are willing and capable of studying and mastering the core concepts of your profession. These are not overnight internet certificates. The PHR and SPHR are rigorous exams that require in-depth knowledge of the beautiful land of HR. If you’re planning to move up the HR ranks, certification is a good step.

Which certification should I get?

Let’s look at two of the most popular HR certifications – the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification and the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification. Both are offered through the HR Certification Institute, which has been around since 1973.

The PHR is a certification you would get early to mid-level in your career. The SPHR is something you would aim for in the mid to senior-level in your career.

Will an HR certification boost my salary?

According to a 2018 Payscale Survey of 100,000+ HR professionals, the answer is yes. By how much? That’s harder to determine. Pay varies widely depending on the organization, but overall those with certifications earn more than their peers without.

With some fancy statistical modeling, Payscale determined that an SPHR certification could give an estimated 9.6% salary boost and a 2.9% boost for a PHR certification.

SPHR and PHR Certifications Compared

What areas does the PHR certification examination cover?

The PHR is best for someone who typically has 1-4 years of experience (less work experience = more schooling required), and has a boss in the HR department.

You are dealing with program implementation and logistical operations within the HR department and not so much the entire organization’s vision around HR.

Area Topics*
Employee & Labor Relations (39%) Employee activities & analysis, federal employment laws, labor relations, company culture, diversity & inclusion, workplace safety, internal investigation techniques, data security & privacy, performance management, termination approaches
Business Management (20%) Company mission & values, corporate governance procedures, legislative & regulatory knowledge, ethical standards, change management methods & application, analytics tools
Talent Planning & Acquisition (16%) Planning concepts & terms, staffing alternatives, interview techniques, applicant tracking systems, offer/contract techniques, new hire orientation
Total Rewards (15%) Compensation policies, job evaluation, pay structures, budgeting, payroll
Learning & Development (10%) Learning theories & application, training program techniques, mentoring techniques, task/process analysis

*These are example topics. You can learn more about the exam here.

The exam is three hours long and has 150 scored questions (mostly multiple-choice) plus 25 pretest questions. As of December 2019, the pass rate was 69%. Woohoo!

What areas does the SPHR certification examination cover?

The SPHR is more geared toward someone with 4-7 years of experience (same as PHR in that more work experience = less need for higher educational degrees), and is involved in the strategic and policy-making aspects of the HR department.

This person is an HR planner rather than a logistical doer.

Area Topics*
Leadership & Strategy (40%) Strategic planning process, company mission & vision, corporate governance procedures, third-party vendor selection, RFPs, project management, HR technology, organization design methods, SWOT, PEST, forecasting techniques, risk management,
Employee Relations and Engagement (20%) Facilitating positive employee relations, attitude assessment methods, professional standards, workplace safety
Talent Planning and Acquisition (16%) Planning concepts & terms, staffing alternatives, interview techniques, applicant tracking systems, offer/contract techniques, new hire orientation
Learning & Development (12%) Compensation policies, job evaluation, pay structures, budgeting, payroll
Total Rewards (12%) Learning theories & application, training program techniques, mentoring techniques, task/process analysis

*These are example topics. You can learn more about the exam here.

Like the PHR, the exam is three hours long and has 150 scored questions (mostly multiple-choice) plus 25 pretest questions. As of December 2019, the pass rate was 60%. Pretty good!

What’s The Verdict: To Certify or Not To Certify?

At the end of the day, having a certification on your resume will make you stand out from the crowd. While having a certification isn’t a necessity in order to get into the field and start working, it will increase your chances of being hired.

The largest upfront hurdle is determining if you are comfortable with paying the exam fees. For the PHR, the cost to sit for the exam is currently $395 plus a $100 application fee, bringing the total to basically $500. For the SPHR, the cost to sit for the exam is currently $495 plus a $100 application fee, bringing the total to basically $600.

If you’re comfortable with paying the exam fees, a certification is a good step for your career. It’s also important to understand the time commitment required in order to prepare and study for the exam. Finding the right study tools can be the difference between a stressful study experience and a productive and fruitful experience.

At Pocket Prep, we’re here to help you pass the PHR or the SPHR the first time.