The History of the PHR and SPHR Exams

By Sandra M. Reed

The history of what is currently known as the PHR and SPHR exams is really quite interesting. Under its earlier name, the Society for Human Resources (SHRM) commissioned a taskforce based on a study of industrial relations in the 1960s. The focus was on whether or not the field of human resources was a true profession, similar to that of a lawyer, doctor, or accountant.

This study and other studies identified characteristics that must exist in order for a body of work to be defined as a profession. Because these other industries weren’t a perfect fit for the practice of HR, the discussion evolved until it was decided that the HR profession must

  • Be a full-time responsibility. In human resources, the tasks, duties, and responsibilities are performed on a full-time basis in many functional areas. Examples include training, compensation, and safety.

  • Have a body of knowledge (BOK) from which schools could teach. The HR body of knowledge is used for the PHR and SPHR exams, and there is a process for updating and certifying the BOK approximately every five years.

  • Have a professional association, along with competency and knowledge certifications. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is perhaps the most well-known HR association. In 1976, the Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) began offering the HR exams known today as the PHR and SPHR. Several other related professional associations have been linked to the business of HR, including World at Work (total rewards) and the Association for Talent Development (training and organizational development). Both of these associations have certifications for HR professionals.

  • Be governed by a code of ethics. Although SHRM and other groups have codes of ethics, the exam-relevant code of ethics is published by HRCI. It includes standards for professional responsibility, professional development, ethical leadership, fairness and integrity, conflict of interest management, as well as how you should use that information.

Since the 1960s, a pattern has emerged. Agencies have changed names, exams have changed names, and content has developed and evolved; it has certainly been a work in progress. The same can be said of your career. An HR professional must continue to evolve to keep pace with this ever-changing profession.

Although your choice to pursue certification is a strategic career move, it also serves a larger goal that brings everyone to the same table. The preparation process teaches all one language and helps everyone apply best practices to their workplaces while mentoring a new generation of talent. Your effort demonstrates a commitment to professional excellence and fits perfectly within the spirit that guides the evolution of our industry.