Why You Take the PHR or SPHR Exam and Get Certified

By Sandra M. Reed

Individuals choose to take the PHR/SPHR exam and become professionally certified for many reasons, and those reasons come from multiple perspectives. More and more employers are looking for certified professionals to draw higher value from their HR talent. The HR industry is seeking to establish a common language and thus encourages professional certification as the way to link best practices and industry standards for work affecting both national and global commerce.

From a personal perspective, individuals seeking certification by taking the PHR or SPHR exam believe that the credentials will validate both competencies and knowledge, allowing for more career opportunities and higher income. Regardless of the filter from which you’re viewing the need for certification, the following sections make the argument that those initials after your name are well worth the time, effort, and investment.

Getting certified compared to obtaining a degree

In some minds, career growth is a three-step process, staged as a hierarchy: get a college degree, intern at a large firm, and then obtain professional certifications to prove your status as a subject matter expert. The real truth however is that career development is more like a jungle gym than a ladder. You must be willing to go up, down, sideways, and under to create a career of passion and to maximize your natural talent.

Countless examples abound of successful visionaries who lacked a traditional degree, and certification is a credible alternative for individuals who didn’t run the college track.

More compelling is the fact that as organizations evolve so must their human resource advisers. In order to stay relevant (translation, job security), HR professionals must be valuable advisers to those companies and individuals that they serve. You can’t achieve it if you fail to keep pace with the emerging trends of business in general, which includes the need to develop both competencies and knowledge. The PHR and SPHR exams achieve this by providing credentials that are accredited in accordance with professional exam standards as rigorous as any other credentialed exam.

The most impressive argument however is simply that the management of human talent is one of the most important issues facing competition in business today. HR professionals must commit to the process of continuing education and staying in front of trends that impact the lives of American and global workers. Certification is the baseline from which that expertise is built and the anchor of the committed professional.

Competing certifications

For individuals who dwell in neutral gear for a living, HR practitioners sure are opinionated about the industry’s certifications. In fact, some of you may be familiar with the recent dust up when the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) announced competing certifications to the PHR and SPHR exams. Change is not unfamiliar to the experienced HR professional, so avoid getting caught up in the drama playing out over which certification exam to take. There have always been multiple choices in the HR field, from certified safety professionals to certified compensation specialists. Stay the course and commit to excellence. Even better, focus on being the business partners and advocates that the people you serve are counting on.

Take a few moments and give some thought to where you are in your career and where you want to go. Try not to think about only the next year or so, but further into your career future. Identify your passion and select the certification that will best build the foundation for a career made up of your own choices, rather than random acts of fate. The PHR or SPHR exam serves as an excellent foundation from which to build your career profile. These exams establish a baseline of knowledge that will serve you well in any human resource position. After you’re certified, you can identify other professional development activities that build toward your passion, such as in safety, training, or business management.

Writing PHR and SPHR exam prep content

The process of writing exam preparation material is a huge responsibility. Exam takers rely upon the quality of the material presented, giving their trust to book reviews and the word of others in selecting the best preparation resource on the market.

For this reason, it’s important for you to understand how the material is developed so that you can make an educated choice about how to allocate your exam prep resources — time and money — for maximum effect. Here is a list of things to look for:

  • Credible authors: Professional item writers exist and are able to effectively take words and translate them into exam items. This simply isn’t enough for the PHR and SPHR exams. Because the exam content is highly based on experience, you need authors who are both practitioners and educators. Understanding how a recruiting source impacts your ability to do your job is much different than writing questions about using newspapers or the Internet to find qualified candidates. All knowledge-based questions are useless, but context matters, which means that you must be asked to combine the knowledge of resources with the application of them to the job.

  • Assessment tests: Two types of assessment tests exist.

    • Review: Review tests sharpen the knife of your baseline knowledge, which means that you should understand the merits of a variety of recruiting sources, including the Internet, trade schools, and newspapers.

    • Exam readiness: This type means that the questions are closely modeled after the retired exam questions made available by HRCI. This distinction is important, because you must utilize a combination of both types in order to have a well-rounded and prepared approach for the exam day experience.

  • Exam bodies of knowledge: When looking at resources, seek to find content that is built to the exam bodies of knowledge (BOK). As with any industry, there are best practices to performing the day-to-day operations of the businesses you represent. There are also respected thought leaders whose ideas and processes are regularly applied across industrial boundaries. Although experienced HR practitioners understand these specifics, they aren’t specifically outlined in the exam objectives. One example is the exam objective that applies to motivating and modifying the behaviors of employees. Experts such as B.F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow, and Douglas McGregor are respected sources for best practices to do so and yet their names aren’t mentioned in the BOK.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Credible sources are highly interested in getting it right. For you, it’s probably personal. You take pride in your pass rates and want to positively impact your success by providing what you need to pass these exams.

Selecting effective resources

With thousands of test questions available and only 175 questions on your specific exam, you’re bound to have prepared for information that won’t show up on your test. Conversely, limiting yourself to only one resource puts you at the mercy of a single perspective. You can control information overload just slightly by avoiding redundancy of material and focusing your studying efforts on the exam specific content that is identified in effective preparation resources. For example, if you have a trusted resource for benchmark knowledge, seek out resources that add another dimension to your preparation activities. Here is a helpful online article that discusses the use of smartphone apps for another perspective.

Furthermore, you must be prepared to go beyond the text when studying for both exams. Consider Michael Porter. He has written thousands of words about the competitive forces affecting commerce today. Yet most exam prep material will only allocate a section or two to his work. Use your resources as a starting point, a compass if you will that places you on the necessary path to follow to get ready.

Finally, don’t shoot the messenger. There are so many moving targets when preparing for these exams, not the least of which is your own work experience and exam choice. What takes some people months to prepare for takes others only weeks. Where you may be strong in risk management, you may have very little exposure to strategic compensation. The goal of most exam prep materials is to give you a go-to resource to both learn exam content and serve as a guide to get you where you want to go. Take ownership of the process and be strategic in your decision-making when it comes to preparing for the exams.