At my last check, the pass rates for the HRCI exams were somewhere around 50%, meaning that half of the people that show up to take the test fail the exam. I’ve been working with people preparing for their PHR and SPHR exams for nearly eight years, and I’ve been giving similar advice to SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP preppers in the last 12-18 months. For what it’s worth, I have both SPHR and SHRM-SCP credentials. In that time I’ve come to realize that there is one clear reason why people fail the exams, and I’ve seen it proven over and over again. But first, let me use a learning model to help show you where the breakdown is. Below you’ll see Bloom’s Taxonomy, a model that explains the successive levels of learning as someone progresses from “newbie” to expert.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Knowledge

blooms taxonomy learning

This explains the biggest challenge that most of the test prep tools in the marketplace have (even my friends at HRCP). Most of them are designed to move someone up the scale, but the farthest they get is knowledge or even comprehension. In some cases, that may be enough to help someone complete the PHR exam, because it’s heavily based on recall and summarizing existing information.

However, it’s not going to get someone through the SHRM exams or the SPHR, either. In order to be successful there, learners have to move up the ladder toward synthesis of knowledge. At that level, learners must be able to:

  • infer ideas from information
  • imagine outcomes
  • predict decisions and best practices
  • combine separate ideas to create new strategies

If it seems like a lot, it is. And the truth is, that doesn’t happen by reading a book. Theory is great, and understanding the theory and history behind HR is a good thing. However, decisions at work are not based on just on theory–they require more.

And while people are upset when they don’t pass the exam, often claiming “the questions were nothing like what I studied,” the truth is that is probably a good thing for businesses needing HR support that can think for itself, not just recite study preparation materials. On the other hand, I get it–you want to prepare for the exam and not feel like you’re rolling the dice when you sit down in the testing center. So I’m going to teach you the principle that I’ve used to create the PHR/SPHR audio course, the PHR study course, and the SPHR study course, helping hundreds of testers to prepare for their certification exams over the years.

Getting from Theory to Application

When I taught a live study course a few years back, one of the things that I did every night, without fail, was to mention some recent piece of news or information that tied in with course materials. Studying about ethics? Let’s talk about Enron and its ethical failures. Discussing executive compensation? Let’s look at the new Supreme Court Justice nominee’s beliefs on compensation limits for executive leadership. In each opportunity, I would find relevant information to help take the theories and ideas from the materials and make them real for my students.

This is why I have created tools like the audio course, the prep courses, etc. I want to give practical information and stories so people can “get it,” versus just memorizing more text. I learned this the hard way when I got out into the “real world” of HR from college, and that translates here as well. After four years of studying and learning all of these basic principles, I had to go out into the real world and apply them.

I quickly realized that upon leaving college, I was about 10% prepared for what I needed to be successful. The rest would come from hands-on experience and practice, despite spending money, time, and effort on a degree specialized to human resources.

The lesson for you, if you’re preparing for an exam of any kind, is to look for ways to tie the learning back to your real world experience. Or to current news stories. Or to anything that is practical. You need that mental anchor not only to remember the ideas and concepts, but to understand how they are applied. When people ask me about my study resources, that’s the primary thing I explain as a difference between anything else on the market. Every week I talk about real experiences, real stories, and how to apply the concepts in real life. And my students are more successful than the average test taker, so there’s that.

What are your thoughts? Have you taken an exam and failed–what do you think of this advice? For those of you that have passed, what’s your take?

This week I have a treat for you. I had the opportunity as part of my role on the #SHRM16 social media coverage team to interview Rohini Anand, Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Global Chief Diversity Officer. She will be speaking at the SHRM Conference on June 20th from 2:00-3:15 in case you are interested in seeing her after reviewing this interview.

rohini anand sodexoBen: Just to get the ball rolling, please tell me about yourself and what you do at Sodexo. 

  • I currently serve as the Senior Vice President, Corporate Responsibility and Global Chief Diversity Officer for Sodexo
  • I am responsible for the strategic direction, implementation and business alignment of Sodexo’s integrated global diversity and inclusion initiatives, as well as Sodexo USA’s sustainable development, wellness and corporate responsibility strategies
  • I also lead the organization’s sustained culture change initiatives, as well as its integration in the overall business growth strategy

Ben: What is Sodexo’s biggest challenge when it comes to diversity and inclusion today?  Continue reading

*Updated with additional info from several anonymous sources

I’m going to preface today’s discussion a bit. I have been a SHRM volunteer leader since 2009. I’ve been a long-time supporter of SHRM. I also have been a supporter of HRCI since 2009 when I became certified. I’ve watched the battle rage between these two organizations over the past two years and have refrained from commenting publicly. This is my opinion (as usual) and doesn’t mean I have stopped supporting either of these valuable organizations. My goal is to make HR better, and I think that each of these groups is trying to do the same in their own respective ways. 

Many of you may know me as the person who talks about HR certification more than anyone else on the Internet. Why do I do it? Because I believe in the value. No, not the value in the certification, but in the value of the commitment to long-term improvement.

SHRM vs HRCI Certification

PHR SPHR SHRM-SCP SHRM-CPI just answered a few questions last week and I wanted to cover the topic here because it’s a theme that I am seeing more and more often.

I am considering certification because I think I would like to move somewhat more toward the HR field.

I am wondering which certification is best (PHR or SHRM) and whether you think it would be beneficial to me in my quest toward a more focused HR career.

Also, this one:

I will be taking the SPHR in June 2016 : please answer my below questions

1. What all material I need to buy
2. i am confused – how could we use SHRM Study Material for SPHR certification – aren’t these two different institutions

For those of you who have been under a rock, SHRM stopped supporting the HRCI credentials (SPHR and PHR) back in 2014. Here’s what I wrote on the topic back then:

HRCI is not planning to discontinue providing PHR, SPHR, and GPHR exams to allow HR professionals to be certified. With SHRM moving away from those exams, it remains to be seen what the overall impact will be on the marketability over time for those of us with one of the “traditional” HR certifications.

My predictions offline at the time were fairly simple. I believed that HRCI was going to win in the short term and SHRM would win in the long term for a few reasons.

  • HRCI has an existing list of more than 100,000 certified HR pros it can market to and try to keep them recertifying.
  • SHRM is trying to turn a cruise ship, and that doesn’t happen overnight. I am still hearing, two years later, SHRM representatives talking about their certification’s value in an attempt to drive interest.
  • My key prediction at the time: SHRM’s influence at the chapter level would eventually turn the tide due to recertification credits and its stranglehold on the requirements for chapter leaders (requiring SHRM-CP/SCP training, for instance).

For those of you that didn’t know, SHRM pays its chapters for any SHRM members and SHRM-CP/SCP certified individuals. Those dollars, more than any marketing that HRCI can put out, will turn the tide in SHRM’s favor over time.

The Ongoing Battle

I think HRCI needs a bigger list to market to and must stop attacking SHRM at every opportunity. They also need to get their recertification people working harder/faster/smarter because from the feedback I’m hearing at different chapters around the country, SHRM is doing a better job at this.

HRCI has recently piloted its aPHR, which is for early career pros as a way to get more of them into the fold (building that list, as I mentioned). This is a close approximation to SHRM’s Assurance of Learning Certificate which has been around for quite a while and is close to being a standard for colleges across the US.

What I think is very strange is that in the past, HRCI didn’t officially “endorse” SHRM as its only learning/prep tool for the exam, but they did a good job of highlighting it on their website. People often thought that SHRM’s Learning System was the official study tool for the PHR and SPHR exams, which is false. Now that the marriage between the two is broken up, HRCI has promoted other study tools, which means my friends at HRCP have been as busy as can be in the fallout (good for them).

It feels like a race to the middle with each of them trying to outdo the other and the rest of us being caught in the middle, unsure of which direction to take. Don’t believe me? I’ve received a version of that question that started this post more than 30 times in the past year. Experience has shown me that if I receive a question a handful of times, there are more than 100 people interested in the same topic. This means there are thousands wondering the same thing.

What Does This Mean for HR Pros?

Last year SHRM used its “pathway” to allow those of us with current certifications to simply click a few buttons and get our SHRM certification. That was partly so SHRM could have some numbers to help it market its certification as the next big thing to HR pros and companies (update: SHRM announced early in December that it had 65,000 pathway participants, with more still completing the process in the final weeks). In a few years those of us with a SHRM cert will have to decide how we will continue. At the same time, we will have to do the same with our HRCI certifications and make the call if we continue or let it lapse.

For those of you making the decision to get certified, consider what I’ve written here. For what it’s worth, here is what I’ve been telling people for the past year:

For now I would continue to pursue the PHR/SPHR. It is recognized as a standard and could even net you more money. SHRM’s certification doesn’t yet hold enough value in the workplace for companies and HR pros to put much stock in it. That may very well change but for now it is unproven and untested. I’ve passed both the PHR and SPHR and the knowledge gained helped me to be better at what I do. I took the SHRM pathway in half an hour and got my SHRM-SCP with about as much effort as you’d put forth pulling the prize from the cereal box.

I received an anonymous comment from someone that is intimately familiar with the HR certification industry and the person had this to say:

One thing you might want to keep in mind regarding these two certifications, is that HRCI certifications are accredited and SHRM’s are not. From what I understand, SHRM is trying to get theirs accredited, but because they also develop the prep materials for the exams, they may not qualify.

Just another piece of the puzzle to consider.

A Few SHRM Positives

One of my friends is a SHRM volunteer leader and explained a few key points to me:

  • The accreditation process isn’t an overnight thing. It can take several years to get the initial stamp of approval. That’s good to know.
  • In addition, he took the SHRM exam since he is an instructor and has to teach classes on exam content. He said that it was much more reflective of the HR role of today than what he recalled the HRCI exam being several years back.
  • He also said that his state, and many others, will continue to offer SHRM and HRCI credits simultaneously for programs. This is good news for those of us holding dual certifications.

I’d love to hear from some of you about how you see this shift affecting you and the rest of the HR community. 

This summer at SHRM I was looking through the sessions in the app in an attempt to figure out which I wanted to attend, and I saw this one right up front.

SOLD OUT – #707: HR Metrics that Matter: The Process of Developing a Business Scorecard

It made me stop and think, especially in light of some of the conversations I had with others at the event about what sort of content was being offered. For instance, one session at the event was focused on the usual “top ten ways to avoid legal trouble this year,” and it had packed out the entire room and the overflow area as well. I’ve always had trouble with those types of training on the supervisory side of things. Why? Because it makes us focus on the negative aspects of our work, how to avoid getting “in trouble,” and makes us seem more like a nanny in the workplace than a trusted resource for managers/employees and a key business leader.

Policies vs. Actual Contributions

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship (mostly hate) with policies. I think we should take more time to coach and support than regulate and demand. Yes, there are times that come when we must make a rule, be the bad guy, etc. but it shouldn’t come on a daily basis. I recently shared Alison Green’s comments on how managers can have a good relationship with HR. The comments on that blog post when she linked from her site are pretty standard, and yet they still hurt those of us who see ourselves as good and helpful business leaders (instead of merely being the “no, you can’t do that” department).

Going back to the original intent of this post, I was glad to see the metrics session being sold out. Why? Because it’s something that we can do that is not just about being sued, covering our company’s butt, or some other litigation-related idea. Even small companies have the ability to gather and use data in a meaningful way.

In my opinion HR pros who make decisions solely on laws and what the handbook/policies allow aren’t making much of a contribution to the organization. It’s those that take the initiative to find ways that they can contribute in a more meaningful way, offer advice and flexibility that pushes the boundaries, and don’t say, “No” to every request that comes in (even if they are a little bit scary).

A Shift to PositiveHR?

It gives me hope that our philosophy as a profession is changing. SHRM and other organizations will continue to offer these “how not to get sued by your employees” sessions, because there is significant demand for them. But over time, I hope to see us focusing more on the other end of the spectrum. There’s even a group of my friends that started this #PositiveHR movement on Twitter, because they believe that we have the opportunity to do great things if we are truly positive and not self-defeating at every turn.

I do understand that there is a natural maturity curve as well. Smaller organizations or those with inexperienced HR pros will drift toward the legalistic side of things, while organizations with more radical HR pros will seize opportunities to focus on engagement and other positive things we bring to the table. It just seems that many organizations (and HR pros) are reluctant to move beyond the legal side of things. Is it because it offers them more power inside the organization? Is it because they need to feel more intelligent/informed than their peers? I’m not sure…

What are your thoughts? Are we still mired in this world of legal issues or is there a chance we can more into more strategic areas of impact? 

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing my friend Steve Browne speak this morning at SHRM. His session was intended to fire up the audience, and I’d say it was a smashing success. One of his comments was powerful, and I thought it deserved to be repeated here because I talk about certification quite a bit.

If your certification is purely about getting recertification hours, having letters after your name, and trying to use that as a way to get credits, then you’re wasting your time and your organization’s time. Go ahead and leave. Or let it lapse. There’s no real value in that sort of attitude.

However, if you pursued certification as a way to make yourself better at delivering HR services for your employees, then you’re on the right track.

If you prepared for months, studied endless hours to pass an incredibly difficult exam, and sat there with sweaty palms as you waited for the pass/fail notification at the end just so you could use something you learned to make your workplace better, you did it for the right reasons.

If your certification is less about making yourself look good and more about how you can make your organization look good for candidates and employees, then you understand the true value of the certification process.

Whether you’re carrying around a PHR, SPHR, SHRM-CP, SHRM-SCP, HRBP, or some other type of credential, remember the end goal. The test is not the goal. Studying is not the objective. Using what you learn to make your organization better is.

How has your certification helped you? What additional impact did you have on your organization once you picked up those almighty letters behind your name? 

A few weeks from now I’ll be joining thousands of my closest HR friends in Las Vegas for the 2015 SHRM Conference. This year is a bit different than the years I visited only as an attendee, because I will be speaking on behalf of Brandon Hall Group about strategic HR at the SHRM SmartStage, which should be a blast. Here are the details:

Strategic HR (It’s Easier Than You Think)

Monday, June 29, 2015 – 3:20pm

Session description: One of the most common suggestions a lot of HR practitioners hear is “You need to be more strategic.” The challenge for many HR pros is that the actual implementation of strategic HR practices is not always clear cut. This presentation will review several mini case studies to teach the audience how to break down problems and present strategic solutions in a simple, yet meaningful way.

Are you going?

If you are going to be in Las Vegas later this month, I would love to meet you at the event. I’m always amazed when I get to meet the great people that follow this blog. One of the fun things I get to do as an HR analyst is talk with HR pros about what’s going on in their businesses, what challenges they are facing, etc. It’s always a great conversation.

If you plan to be there, please shoot me an email and we’ll plan to connect. And if you’re not, we can still connect! Email me and we can chat on the phone or via email. I thoroughly enjoy connecting with every person I can within the HR community.

Before I jump in, I realize that there is some cost associated with everything. My love of economics doesn’t allow me to get away with the idea of a “free lunch” without mentioning that; however, I’m talking about increasing the perceived value without increasing the direct cost of the various options offered. Hang with me, there’s good stuff to share. 

My first SHRM 2014 session focused on benefit communication best practices and was presented by Mary Shafer at ADP. Here are nine tips, ideas, and concepts for improving your benefits communication.

  1. What’s the key to crafting a communication plan? Understand your objective and your audience and communicate with multiple media.
  2. If you want to increase the perceived value of an item (your benefits package), you need to help the customer (your employees) better understand the offerings and how they can help them to achieve their life goals.
  3. Think about targeted, timely messages. As an example, “Hey, it’s two months until the end of the plan year. You still have some of your FSA funds remaining. Here are a few ideas for how you could utilize those funds before they expire…”
  4. Talk in laymen’s terms, not HR-speak. Think about someone in your life that might have trouble understanding the message, and make sure you could explain it to them (a teen, parent, grandparent, etc.).
  5. Mix up the media you use–email and/or brochures are not the only options! Consider postcards, posters (bonus tip: include QR codes for smartphone scanning), mailings, video, podcasts, text, external websites, or even social media.
  6. Use employee stories (with permission) to make the options personal and help others relate. Maybe a new parent talking about how the maternity benefits helped them, an employee who utilized the short term disability coverage, or someone who transitioned to a high deductible plan and realized cost savings.
  7. This topic was recently covered in part in “Are your employees clueless about their benefits?”
  8. Be sure to measure, refine, and follow up. Results are the key here, not just activity.
  9. Pro tip: use short one minute videos to answer questions in an FAQ format and post them internally for employees to access. Not sure how to start? Imagine an employee calls you with a question about their benefits. Now, consider your response to that question. Take a few moments to write down some key thoughts, then shoot a video of your response (or just record the audio as a podcast, if you’re video shy!). That is all it takes! Do five to ten of those, then post them. As you get other frequent/recurring requests, create more of those short snippets to help answer questions.

So, what has worked for your organization? How do you communicate benefits to your staff? Are any of the suggestions above of particular interest to you?