HR certification: Worth it? If so, which one to pursue?

You may not need a license to practice HR or benefits administration, but earning an HR certification tells your employer (and potential employers) that you know your stuff.

Various organizations offer an alphabet soup of certifications. But is certification even necessary for your career path? If it is, which certification is right for you? Do your homework: The most common certifications may not be your best career choice.

Choosing the right certification

The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI), part of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), offers the most popular HR certifications.

HRCI confers the well-known Professional in Human Resources (PHR), Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and Global Professional in Human Resources (GPHR) certifications, which require HR experience and understanding of general HR principles.

PHR and SPHR certifications are for those with varied HR experience or who wear several HR “hats.”

Tough Talks D

“If you’re going into an organization that’s smaller or if you’re going to have to do all of the HR, these would definitely be important,” says Cornelia Springer, HRCI’s executive director.

The average pass rate for the PHR test over the past five years stands at 66%; 57% for the SPHR test.

If you’re an HR specialist in compensation, benefits, payroll or work/life (or plan a move to those areas), look more closely at certifications from smaller, more targeted groups, such as the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, American Payroll Association or WorldatWork.

Those certifications involve several exams and usually demand more preparation than general certifications.

Should you enroll in a prep course?

Most organizations offer courses to help people prepare for their exams. 

Enrolling in an online or a face-to-face prep class provides instructor interactions and the opportunity to network with other applicants. Plus, it forces you to set aside time to focus on the exam.

But if you’re a self-starter, put your energy instead into the comprehensive self-study materials that each association offers.

Two certifications: one too many?

Some experts advise not limiting yourself to a single certification.

“It’s valuable to have more than one because, for those people who want to move up to be a true leader in HR, at some point every job becomes multifunctional,” says Luke Malloy, Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) and director of compensation for United Health Group. Malloy currently is in the early stages of his Certified Employee Benefit Specialist coursework.

Most of the skills necessary for one certification build on those needed for others; courses for one often count toward recertification credit for another.

Moving up, earning more

No research proves that certified professionals enjoy higher salaries or quicker promotions, but certification organizations suggest they do.

Malloy says he and several colleagues sought out certification as building blocks for career advancement. Specialized certification also can be a great way to break into a new field.

“When we went to make our next career move, the fact that we had our CCP was worth more in the market,” says Malloy.

John Anthony Meza, associate director of national community involvement for KPMG, agrees. When he hires HR pros, a certification “helps bump someone up,” he says, noting that “having something above and beyond your bachelor’s is going to help you.”

He believes certification indicates the bearer has broad knowledge of the field or specialty, even if the person’s job focuses only on a narrow part of it.

To consider before enrolling

Before plunking down hundreds of dollars for a certification, consider:

  • Cost. Talk to your employer about using continuing education funds to start your certification training.
  • Prep support. Take practice exams that offer rationales for each answer. You’ll learn where your strengths are and what areas you need to concentrate on.
  • Relevance to your goals. When choosing a certification, check ads for the job you want. Which certifications are employers requesting? Do the job titles of recently certified professionals fit your future goals?
  • How you’ll capitalize on your success. Make sure current and future employers know you have earned a certification. Ask your testing agency to supply a letter template that you can use to advertise your certification.

The ABCs of HR certification: choosing the one that’s right for you

Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI)

PHR: Professional in Human Resources.

SPHR: Senior Professional in Human Resources.

GPHR: Global Professional in Human Resources.

PHR-CA; SPHR-CA: Same as above, but specifically concentrating on California’s unique and complex HR laws.

Overview: 250 testing sites around the country administer a four-hour, multiple-choice exam for each of the certifications. Candidates must have at least two years’ exempt-level HR experience. Recertification is every three years.

Cost: $250 to $425.

How to prepare: SHRM offers prep materials and courses based on an HRCI test outline that it updates every five years.

For more information:

WorldatWork Society of Certified Professionals

CCP: Certified Compensation Professional.

CBP: Certified Benefits Professional.

GRP: Global Remuneration Professional (aimed at a non-U.S. audience).

WLCP: Work-Life Certified Professional.

Overview: CCP and CBP require nine exams each; GRP requires eight exams; and WLCP requires four. Each has about 100 multiple-choice questions. Recertification is every three years.

Cost: $395 per exam. Most applicants take each exam immediately following a two-day WorldatWork seminar, for a total price of up to $1,810.

How to prepare: WorldatWork offers self-study materials and courses for test prep. Most pursue the certification over a four-year period.

For more information:

International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans

CEBS: Certified Employee Benefit Specialist.

GBA: Group Benefits Associate.

RPA: Retirement Plans Associate.

CMS: Compensation Management Specialist.

Overview: The CEBS has eight exams; the others have three or four exams. To earn CEBS certification, the designee also must earn two of the other certifications.

Cost: $275 each.

How to prepare: For each exam, applicants purchase self-study materials or take a 15-week online course created by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

For more information:

American Payroll Association (APA)

FPC: Fundamental Payroll Certification.

CPP: Certified Payroll Professional.

Overview: For payroll beginners, the FPC requires one exam. The CPP requires completion of the FPC, three years as a payroll professional and either four two- to three-day classes or two payroll courses offered by the APA. The CPP recertification is every five years; the FPC is every three years.

Cost: $270-$335.

For more information: