PHR/SPHR Exam Weights by Functional Area

By Sandra M. Reed

Weighting the PHR/SPHR exam content allows the test builders to rank information in the order of importance. Exam weights are expressed as percentages — the higher the percentage, the more important the information.

For example, the functional area of Business Management and Strategy weighs in at approximately 30 percent of the content of the SPHR exam, making it a top priority for SPHR exam takers. PHR candidates should pay special attention to the category of Workforce Planning and Employment, which is 24 percent of that exam.

Ignore this critical exam feature at your peril, because the weights tell you exactly where you should spend the bulk of your study time, regardless of your test selection.

Both the PHR and the SPHR exams have the same body of knowledge (BOK) with identical exam objectives. That means that you must be prepared to see similar content on both exams. Although both exams have 175 questions, they each place different emphasis on the exam objectives. See the table for the exam weights sorted by functional area for the two exams. For example, the PHR exam has 24 percent of its questions devoted to Workforce Planning and Employment, which is approximately 42 questions.

PHR and SPHR Exam Weights
Functional Area Exam
Weight — SPHR
Number of Questions SPHR Exam
Weight — PHR
Number of Questions PHR
Business Management and Strategy 30 percent 53 11 percent 19
Workforce Planning and Employment 17 percent 30 24 percent 42
Human Resource Development 19 percent 33 18 percent 32
Compensation and Benefits 13 percent 23 19 percent 33
Employee and Labor Relations 14 percent 25 20 percent 35
Risk Management 7 percent 12 8 percent 14

Note: The core knowledge requirements are the seventh studying area. These concepts exist and apply throughout all of the preceding objectives, but they aren’t necessarily stand-alone.

If you’re on an accelerated study schedule or just want to brush up on the salient points, take a look at the following table that shows you the three functional areas that make up more than 50 percent of the PHR and the SPHR exam.

The Top Three Functional Areas
PHR Functional Area Exam Weight Number of Questions
Workforce Planning and Employment 24 percent 42
Employee and Labor Relations 20 percent 35
Compensation and Benefits 19 percent 33
Total 63 percent 110/175 questions
SPHR Functional Area Exam Weight Number of Questions
Business Management and Strategy 30 percent 53
Workforce Planning and Employment 17 percent 30
Human Resources Development 19 percent 33
Total 66 percent 116/175 questions

The two exams differ in two ways. The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) specifies these differences in the following ways:

  • Some of the exam objectives are marked as SPHR or PHR only, which means that only the designated exam will carry questions about that specific objective.

  • The exams questions are worded differently. The easiest way to describe the differences is by using the terms operational versus strategic:

  • The PHR, being operational in nature, words questions in ways that ask for how you would do something on the job or what the impact a decision may have on other departments.

  • SPHR questions are more subjective, requiring you to call upon your knowledge and experience base to correctly answer the question.

  • For example, even though both exams may have questions related to recruiting, the PHR exam will deal with operational specificity, whereas the SPHR exam will be more focused on oversight and strategic implications. Here are two sample questions asking a very similar question with a different correct answer to illustrate this significant ­difference.

First the PHR question:

  1. A position has just opened for a quality technician in the Research and Development department of the company you work for. The position is part time, requires some education, and could have a flexible schedule for the right talent. Which of the following recruiting sources would BEST result in qualified applicants?

    (A) School-to-work programs

    (B) College or trade school recruiting

    (C) Online sources, such as recruiting sites and social media

    (D) Daycares and elementary schools

    Although all of the answers have potential to result in a qualified individual, the correct answer is (B). College or trade schools is a targeted resource and most likely to have candidates who are interested in part-time work while having some education in the field. (A) requires a more significant relationship investment in a partnership with local schools, and (D) doesn’t target the labor pool adequately. Answer (C) is a broader scope than may be necessary for this job opening.

    Compare it to this am SPHR question:

  2. ABC Manufacturing has launched a total quality management program in order to be eligible to service international clientele. As a result, the company will need to regularly add quality inspectors to its R & D department over the next three to five years, with newly trained employees being deployed to the logistic center in need. The position will be part time, require some technical aptitude, and have nontraditional hours. Which of the following recruitment sources would BEST result in a steady flow of qualified candidates?

    (A) School-to-work programs

    (B) College or trade school recruiting

    (C) Online sources, such as recruiting sites and social media

    (D) Daycares and elementary schools

    In this example, answer (A) is best. A school-to-work program is a community partnership that works with local high school campuses to both train and funnel qualified individuals for job openings. Answers (B) and (C) are quite useful for short-term recruiting needs rather than a long-term sustained effort. (D) isn’t targeted at all toward the position.

Being armed with information about the exams, such as assessment results and question formatting, can feel a bit overwhelming. The exam content is already cumbersome and tricky, and tracking and managing information about the exams rather than what is on the exams may seem unnecessary. However doing the legwork before you dive into the exam content is worth it. It can reduce anxiety and ensure that you have adequate time to prepare for both the exam content and the pitfalls to avoid.