PHR / SPHR Exam For Dummies
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Both the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) exams have unique functional areas in terms of content, and you need to know what to do with this information in order for it to serve you. Similar to the test questions, you must be able to apply the knowledge from a workplace perspective to be successful. Each exam has five functional areas. This article provides a brief overview of what you can expect about the functional areas of the PHR and SPHR exams.

A note about Federal Employment Law: Employment law changes from year to year. However, the exam content outlines are only updated every five to seven years or so.

The Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) tells us that exam candidates are responsible for knowing the HR laws that are in place at the time of their exam. For this reason, regardless of the exam prep resource you use, you may need some additional research to ensure your knowledge of best legal practices is up-to-date. Final note: The exam includes questions related to federal laws and regulations, not state laws.


PHR test questions are designed for the operational practitioner of human resources. The exam goes beyond the foundations of an entry-level performer and bumps right up against the strategic skills required of their human resource bosses. While the functional area titles of the PHR and SPHR exams are similar, the content weight and focus are different.

Functional area 01—Business Management

Second only to functional area 05 in exam content, Business Management makes up 20 percent of PHR exam questions. The focus is heavily weighted toward executing HR activities in alignment with the business, such as industry best practices, the company mission and vision, as well as taking care to avoid litigation related to employment law violations.

Functional area 02—Talent Planning and Acquisition

At 16 percent, the Talent Planning and Acquisition area of the PHR should not give you (too much) trouble. Take care to study concepts such as federal labor law and its impact on hiring practices; creative candidate sourcing techniques; and the cycle of acquiring talent within the organization, from recruitment to negotiating employment offers.

Functional area 03—Learning and Development

Learning & Development (L & D) has evolved from a strict focus on training design and delivery. In today’s world, it relates to a generalist’s ability to advise managers and team members on professional growth, career plans and replacement planning efforts that support business strategies. At only 10 percent of the exam content, focus on how L & D supports the larger scope of the Business Management and Talent Planning and Acquisition functional areas.

Functional area 04—Total Rewards

Implementing and managing total rewards programs provides 15 percent of the PHR exam content. It starts with the critical function of managing employee payroll, and rounds out with the ability to understand and administer effective employee benefit programs.

Functional area 05—Employee Relations and Engagement

HRCI saved the most comprehensive section of the PHR exam for last. This section deals with matters related to HR functions throughout the employee life cycle and collecting/interpreting data related to employee engagement levels at each stage. It makes up a whopping 39 percent of the total exam, so PHR hopefuls must pay particular attention.

Federal requirements related to diversity, inclusion, health and safety, employee policies, discipline, and separations are all measured here in the functional area of Employee and Labor Relations. You will find content related to employee performance management migrated to this section from previous versions.


SPHR test questions are highly scenario-based and require the ability to integrate information from all functional areas in your analysis. This exam is designed for senior leaders who help shape business strategy and position their companies to successfully navigate the business landscape—inside the workplace and out.

Functional area 01—Leadership and Strategy

Formerly called Business Management and Strategy, the Leadership and Strategy functional area of the SPHR exam makes up 40 percent of total exam content. It focuses on developing HR strategies that are in alignment with business strategy, and draws heavily from the domains of Business Management (such as business metrics and operations) and Organizational Development (such as managing change and behavior).

Functional area 02—Talent Planning and Acquisition

The functional area of Talent Planning and Acquisition carries the same punch on both exams, coming in at 16 percent. For the SPHR, this content is derived from strategies designed to plan for, attract, and retain talent. Look for questions about workforce planning (such as expansion and downsizing) and cultural integration (such as onboarding and socialization). As with all content on the SPHR, pay special attention to measuring the results of these activities.

Functional area 03—Learning and Development

Learning and Development (L & D) is about more than just training workers. At 12 percent of the SPHR exam content, it is tied closely to organizational development and expands upon the idea that training and performance management can help organizations meet both current and future needs. For this reason (as in practice), L & D activities cascade out from Talent Planning and Acquisition functions. Among the exam objectives, expect to see HR behaviors such as evaluating training strategies and succession planning.

Functional area 04—Total Rewards

Similar to L & D, content in the Total Rewards function on the SPHR exam makes up about 12 percent. Labor costs are often the top expense for organizations, so oversight of this function — and the measurement of results — is critical for senior HR leaders. This includes heavy emphasis on the design of creative compensation strategies, such as incentives and executive pay, as well as analyzing the effectiveness of employee benefit plans.

Functional area 05—Employee Relations and Engagement

Not just about union management anymore, this functional area has evolved to include the management of all relationships in the workplace. From an exam perspective, it makes up the second highest amount of content, 20 percent. This includes factors related to measuring and improving employee satisfaction, building diversity and inclusion initiatives, and of course, the original concepts of managing a union/management relationship. In 2018, the content from the former Risk Management functional area was migrated here as well.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Sandra M. Reed, SPHR, is the owner of EpocHResources, a consulting firm specializing in the unique HR needs of small businesses. She has authored learning modules and case studies for the Society for Human Resource Management. She is the co-author of PHR/SPHR: Professional in Human Resources Certification Study Guide, 4E, by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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