The winter testing window is coming up with HRCI (the Human Resources Certification Institute, for you newbies), and you might be wondering what the difference is between the PHR and SPHR exams. With both of the exam pass rates hovering around 50% (54% PHR, 53%  SPHR), it’s critical to make sure you understand the requirements of each and develop a proper plan for preparing. Today I want to explore some of the variations I have seen as well as from some of the feedback from previous students I helped with the certification exams.

phr sphr exams differencesExam Content

The most obvious difference is the one that HRCI tells you about. The exam content for each has a slightly different focus. This is because for lower level HR roles, it’s more important to have a grasp of the laws and other legal requirements. For SPHR test takers, they are typically in higher level roles that require more planning and strategy, hence the big bump in the Business Management and Strategy content area. Here’s the breakdown:

PHR Exam Content Outline

  • Business Management and Strategy (11%)
  • Workforce Planning and Employment (24%)
  • Human Resource Development (18%)
  • Compensation and Benefits (19%)
  • Employee and Labor Relations (20%)
  • Risk Management (8%)

SPHR Exam Content Outline

  • Business Management and Strategy (30%)
  • Workforce Planning and Employment (17%)
  • Human Resource Development (19%)
  • Compensation and Benefits (13%)
  • Employee and Labor Relations (14%)
  • Risk Management (7%)

Specialized Knowledge Requirements

The content for the exams can run across a variety of topic areas. The guide supplied by HRCI is just a starting point, but it helps us to see some of the key differences in PHR and SPHR exam topics. Below is a sampling of the SPHR-only topics that PHR test taker should not have to worry about. That’s not to say they aren’t important, but when you’re prioritizing PHR study time and might not have enough to focus on every topic, skip these. If you’re going for the SPHR, prioritize these.

  • Participate as a contributing partner in the organization’s strategic planning process (for example: provide and lead workforce planning discussion with management, develop and present long-term forecast of human capital needs at the organizational level).
  • Develop and utilize business metrics to measure achievement of the organization’s strategic goals and objectives (for example: key performance indicators, balanced scorecard).
  • Perform cost/benefit analyses on proposed projects.
  • Develop policies and procedures to support corporate governance initiatives (for example: whistle-blower protection, code of ethics).
  • Identify and evaluate alternatives and recommend strategies for vendor selection and/or outsourcing.
  • Oversee or lead the transition and/or implementation of new systems, service centers, and outsourcing.
  • Determine the strategic application of integrated technical tools and systems (for example: new enterprise software, performance management tools, self-service technologies).
  • Develop, implement and evaluate the succession planning process.
  • Evaluate effectiveness of employee training programs through the use of metrics (for example: participant surveys, pre- and post-testing).

Again, this is just a selection of the SPHR-specific content that shows up on the exam, but it is critical to make sure you understand these not only in theory, but in application as well. Just looking at this list, it’s easy to see how “Knowledge of FMLA requirements” is a little different than “evaluate effectiveness of training programs with metrics.” One of them requires a broader knowledge base, skill set, and point of view. That’s not to say the PHR is easy or simple, but there’s a reason there are two separate exams.

Application vs Synthesis Thinking

I alluded to this, but it’s one of the most critical pieces that I always try to explain when people come to me for advice. The way you approach the exam preparation, and the way you develop your mindset/framework for evaluating test questions and answers, is going to depend on the exam. I’ve tried to lay it out below in terms that reflect my own experience as well as the dozens of students I have supported over the years.

The PHR is more about learning terms, concepts, and ideas and then remembering them for the exam. Simple memorization might not work, because you still need to know the “best answer” in some cases, and that requires some critical thinking. However, getting a good set of testing materials and studying well will go a long way towards success on the PHR.

sphr study courseThe SPHR is more about blending knowledge from a variety of areas into a cohesive strategy. In fact, “strategy” is the number one way I explain to students that the SPHR is different when they are preparing for the exam. Not only is the first module around strategy and business the largest piece of the exam content–it is also woven throughout the entire question set, forcing test takers to evaluate multiple courses and select the best one. As I wrote in my previous piece on how to pass the SPHR exam:

Seriously, though, there is a strategy to answering questions on the exam. This is critical if you are trying to figure out how to pass the SPHR exam. Here are five keys I used:

This is strategic in nature, meaning that it’s about how HR ties in, and drives, business activities and measures. Write that on your scratch paper when you sit down and every time you read a question glance at that little phrase.

Know how HR activities tie into the business objectives, and look for opportunities to highlight that in an answer everywhere possible

“Strategy,” “company objectives,” and “business needs” are usually the answers when they are options.

It is important to measure, assess, analyze, etc. before actually taking action.

Imagine that you’re not in HR, but that you’re the CEO, especially when the question is focusing on marketing, operations, or another aspect of the business. Answering from that mindset will help to ensure that you’re giving the broad, strategic perspective the test warrants.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, the exams vary in multiple ways. The most important thing to do is pick the one that is a right fit for you and then develop a study plan that prepares you adequately for the test. Your preparation isn’t meant to come simply from a book–your experiences and interactions with other HR professionals both help to drive your certification preparation.

For those of you that have taken both, what differences have you noticed with the PHR and SPHR exams? If you’ve taken just one, did what I shared above line up with your experience? 

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  • 2 thoughts on “The Difference Between the PHR and SPHR Exams

    1. Hi Ben,

      This is a tad irrelevant to the article’s topic, but still related to HR certifications. I wanted to ask you if having SHRM’s Assurance of Learning certificate hold any weight. I’m a recent graduate who is coming up on a year of Recruiting Coordinator experience, but looking to hunt for entry-level general HR positions come November. Do you know if this certificate has actually helped people get hired?

      Thank you for your time!

      • Hey, Amy! I think it’s valuable for students as a tool to prepare them for the workplace, but most employers would not know what it is. You’d have to educate them on what the concept is, and then you could show that you’ve passed the requirements.

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