HR Certification Trends: An Interview with the CEO of HRCI

One of the most popular posts I’ve written all year was dedicated to the HR certification decision facing today’s HR pros. I decided to take it a step further and reach out to some people to discuss the behind-the-scenes pieces of the HR certification world. Today’s interview is with Amy Dufrane, CEO of the Human Resources Certification Institute. I hope you enjoy!

Ben: First of all, I want to thank you for “walking the talk,” because I see that you have your SPHR certification. That’s a great example for the HR professionals out there to see and follow. Tell me a bit about your background and what led you to your current role as the CEO of HRCI. 

Amy Dufrane: I joined HR Certification Institute in 2011 as Chief Operating Officer and was named CEO in December 2012. Before joining HRCI, I spent more than two decades in human resources leadership roles at  organizations such as the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, where I served as Chief Human Resources and Administrative Officer; The Optical Society, where I headed up major talent retention and employee satisfaction initiatives and served as an advisor to the CEO and senior team; and Marymount University, where managed day to day HR office operations; and on the corporate side in HR at Bloomingdales.

In addition to having my SPHR, I also hold a Certified Association Executive (CAE) from ASAE, as well as an MBA and a MA in Human Resources from Marymount and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from George Washington University. I'm equally proud of the work I do outside of my day job which includes serving as a commissioner for ICE; an Advisory Board Member with the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind; an Advisory Board to the WorkCred an affiliate of ANSI; and an active volunteer with the HR Leadership Awards of Greater Washington.

Ben: Talk to me about competency-based exams. I hear this term often and it seems to be confusing for the general, in-the-trenches HR pro. Different organizations throw it around and I want to make sure it is understood.

Amy Dufrane: I'm really glad you asked me that because there is some confusion where the use of the term competency-based exams is concerned, and I'm happy to clarify how professional competency is — and has always been — at the core of HRCI's portfolio of credentials.

In the simplest of terms, competency speaks to having the proficiency, mastery and the judgment to successfully perform tasks and navigate situations. In fact, for the past 40 years, all of HRCI's exams, known as the HR industry's gold-standard for their rigor and relevancy and how widely respected they are, have always required candidates to draw on the various levels and types of professional experience and expertise that serve as a prerequisite for the certification exams.

Maintaining the rigor and relevancy of our certifications and exams is job #1 at HRCI and is an ongoing process. Twice a year, 200 highly experienced HR professionals across a spectrum of backgrounds – from senior HR professional to university professors who teach business, organizational behavior and HR management – meet to update exam content and draft exam questions. Then the questions/exams are subjected to peer review and pilot testing by hundreds of candidates. Bottom line – HRCI exam content is designed by seasoned HR professionals who are actually doing the work, in the field, facing a full spectrum of emerging and perennial issues in real world situations. And that's what makes for a competency-based exam.

To illustrate even further, let's look to air traffic controllers. At major airline hubs and small-town airports alike, the air traffic controller keeps the planes moving. To land a spot in the control tower, applicants have to clear a series of tests to prove split-second precision in one of the most high-stakes environments in any workplace. We like to think that those who have achieved a certification through HRCI enjoy a similar status within our profession, precisely because of the rigor of the certification process.

Ben: I see that the aPHR was launched recently. Can you comment on why HRCI created this level and what the reception has been from the market? 

Amy Dufrane: We created the aPHR to expand our offerings to have full spectrum options for HR professionals, from the start of their HR careers through the most senior levels, no matter where in the world they practice. Holding an aPHR tells employers you are committed to excellence and gives you a competitive advantage when seeking a new job or a promotion. In short, the aPHR sets you on a path for career success from the start.

Specifically, the Associate Professional in Human Resourcesâ„¢ (aPHRTM) is a perfect option for individuals planning a career in the competitive and increasingly complex field of human resources starting with college students pursuing an HR degree, those serving in HR support roles or who have HR responsibilities as part of their roles (eg, line managers), as well as the substantial number of military personnel in HR roles who are seeking professional development or would like to transition to a civilian HR role.

The aPHR was designed to demonstrate a high level of understanding of the fundamentals of HR and help individuals achieving this certification stand out among their peers to prospective employers. As such, the aPHR exam focuses on the fundamentals of HR principles and practices including recruitment, HR development and retention, compensation and benefits, employee relations, and health, safety and security.  And while there are certainly other options available such as earning a graduate degree in HR either in a traditional classroom setting or online, certification is both a less costly and quicker to achieve option and carries with it the respect of HRCI's “PHR family” of certifications.  

I'm pleased to say that the response to the aPHR pilot test period has been overwhelming, with registrations being double what we expected. The aPHR pilot exam will be administered in May, and registration opened in April for the first full testing period which will take place November 2016 – January 2017.  Initial applicants skew heavily in government, health, professional services, manufacturing, finance and retail.  Exactly as we suspected.

Ben: It seems like HRCI has grown its partnerships and extended its reach in numerous directions in the past two years since the break with SHRM. It might be that these actions are just better publicized, but I think many people only associate HRCI with certifications and not broader business impacts. Can you speak to some of the areas HRCI is exploring so the audience has a picture of the organization’s impact on the space?

Amy Dufrane: Yes we have and so glad you noticed! As I mentioned earlier, our mission is to advance the HR profession and of course one way we achieve this is by offering the gold standard of certifications around the globe. But you are right, HRCI has been very active on the partnership front as we think this is a critical time for the industry as HR truly has achieved a “seat at the table” and HR professionals are expected to prove ROI and demonstrate impact on organizational performance and success each and every day.

There are so many things I could discuss with you here but I will focus on three main ones.

  1. First, last year (2015) we published the results of a large-scale study conducted by an independent third-party research organization (conducted in 2014) that took a deep dive into the value of certification in order to demonstrate and quantify the value of certification from the perspective of individual certificants – that is, the HR professional him/herself – and that of their supervisors. I could go into all the details, but the bottom line is that the study was able to prove and quantify that HR professionals who are certified (and more specifically, who hold either the PHR or SPHR) have higher annual income, higher career satisfaction, greater career potential – and most critically, are more often employed – than their non-certified peers. Feedback from supervisors of HR teams, found certified professionals perform better, have greater expertise and are more strategic: Two-thirds of supervisors of HR professionals surveyed said their organization prefers to hire HRCI-certified professionals for at least some positions and 1 in 5 supervisors said their organization requires certification by HRCI for some or all HR positions.
  2. This year, we conducted joint research with one of our newest strategic partners, Top Employers Institute, looking at the impact of HR best practices and business performance. The research showed that better business performance – as demonstrated by higher stock performance, greater compounded revenue growth and more favorable perception of companies' employer brand – is correlated both with company-wide certification of HR best practices and with the employment of a proportion of HR-certified professionals. Specifically,  we found  that organizations employing  more than five HRCI-certified individuals had:
    1. 50% higher stock performance,
    2. 25% greater compounded revenue growth rates, and
    3. Higher Glassdoor ratings
  3. As our research and strategic partnerships have expanded in the past 1-2 years, so has our ability to more quickly react to the needs of the HR market both domestically and internationally. The three key areas we have been able to support both businesses and the HR professionals that work there are:
    1. Brand Visibility: To help global employers more easily spot an HRCI-certified HR leader, we rebranded our international exams to carry the PHR core name.  Now those exams are PHRi and SPHRi and our certificant holders are thrilled to see the most respected certification brand letters across the globe.  The launch of digital badges for all of our certifications last year also helps HR professionals proudly show their credentials, but has a link for employers to quickly validate the valid dates of the certification.
    2. Buyer Experience: Making it easier for employers and HR professionals to buy a wide variety of exam preparation materials, second chance insurance and the exam you need all at once and for a discount, has eased the burden of multiple transactions.
    3. Breadth of Offers:  With the launch of the aPHR and the addition of organization-wide certification through our partner Top Employers Institute, we offer the full spectrum of options for an organization to validate their use of best practices throughout an organization.  In addition, we have greatly expanded our recertification or continuing education options through our vast network of approved providers.  This not only helps our certificants, but gives organizations of all kinds and sizes the opportunity to expand THEIR market to include the highly sought after HRCI certificants that help the HR community thrive.

The main message, Ben, is that HRCI is maintaining and building on its 40-year history of offering HR certifications around the globe and we are expanding on our commitment to advance and demonstrate the value of the HR profession.

Ben: That’s really exciting to see actual business results tied to the certification side of things. The justification for getting your PHR/SPHR is greater than ever! Very cool. 

In some of my conversations with those that have been certified for many years (back when paper-based exams were used), they comment that the PHR/SPHR were mainly knowledge tests. However, I earned my SPHR in 2015, and I remember many questions that were highly strategic and/or written in a way that required an understanding of the complex relationships in a business operation. There was no way to “cram” or study for that–it required insights that come from years of experience in the field. What would you say to those people about how the exams have changed over time? 

Amy Dufrane: First, let me say congratulations and glad to see you have kept your certification current. As I said before, our exams have always required a level of insight and ability to make judgment calls that can only be gained from direct experience in the field. And, again, that goes back to HRCI's 40-year history of providing certifications that are developed by HR professionals for HR professionals, that has our family of certifications consistently respected and in high demand due to their rigor and relevancy.

And our exams are constantly updated to stay current with what's happening and with what's emerging in the profession, so it's not the case that HRCI's exams have changed “over time” but rather they change in “real time.” Again, we do this by working with hundreds of subject matter experts each year, who are actually doing the work, in the field and around the world, facing these issues in real world situations, to review HRCI and expand exam content to maintain that currency and relevancy.

Ben: Not to hold you to anything, but let’s dream a little. What do you see as the future of certification for HR professionals? Will it always be a timed test, or could there be experiential elements or other innovations to make it more of a true picture of quality and efficacy of HR business practices? 

Amy Dufrane: Ben – at HRCI we have little time to dream with all the new products, partners and opportunities we are pursuing every day!

However, as businesses become more and more complex; and continue to expand into the global market, we are already seeing evidence that HR certification is becoming a requirement to practice HR in many countries. And, given the trend being driven by the Internet of Things, users are demanding a more immediate and simplified way to access the most complex of needs.

There are already experimental ways of testing in new locations and with new testing elements to keep the user engaged and able to view a scenario versus read one – to monitor their response. HRCI has many possible irons in the fire and is driven to stay on the cutting edge of moving the HR industry forward…whatever that may look like in the next 5 years!


I’d like to thank Amy and her team at HRCI for being responsive to this series of questions and for taking the time to respond to them appropriately. I’m more excited about certification than ever before, and I hope that you are as well. If you have questions, comments, or other ideas, feel free to comment below. I’m going to keep the team at HRCI in the loop so they can respond if they feel the need. You can learn more about the organization at

4 thoughts on “HR Certification Trends: An Interview with the CEO of HRCI

  1. Bobbi

    Great post! I have been a huge supporter of HRCI in the past and hold my SPHR. However, I can’t help but think they are shooting themselves in the foot with the recent changes to obtaining business credit for conferences. SHRM will no longer seek HRCI credit for SHRM sponsored courses/conferences so it is up to the state/local chapters to try and obtain business credits for their SPHR members. HRCI is not approving any sessions as business unless the ENTIRE conference is business. As a volunteer conference planner, with a full time day job/family, etc. – this makes it extremely difficult to work with HRCI.

    1. Kerry

      Hi Bobbi! As the HRCI officer that oversees our Approved Provider (AP) program, I am so glad you commented with the event credit questions so I can put you at ease since unfortunately, you’ve been misinformed. I’ve addressed your comments in order:
      1 – The only recent changes to obtaining business credit HRCI has made, is to make it easier for you to find low-and-no-cost recert credit solutions, check out
      2 – SHRM National continues to submit courses to HRCI for pre-approved credit.
      3 – SHRM local chapters also continue to submit courses and conferences for pre-approved credit.
      4 – Conferences from any of our hundreds/thousands of AP partners are submitted as a whole. Once our AP team has reviewed all of the documents submitted for a single, multi-course conference, HRCI provides the submitter with a pre-approved account indicating which sessions qualify for Business, Global, California or HR credit.

      Finally, the Annual SHRM Conference in June is pre-approved for 14 credits – including Business, Global and HR, and we suspect they may even submit more before the event begins.

      Thank you so much for asking questions that others may have! Feel free to call our Call Center with any other questions you may have at +1-866-898-4724 (U.S. Toll Free)
      +1-571-551-6700 (Toll)


  2. John Jorgensen

    As always, a well written piece. I liked hearing what HRCI had to say minus some of the propaganda some of their employees have issued in the past. I would love it if you approached SHRM to write a similar piece. As someone who has held their SPHR for 15 years or so and has held the SHRM-SCP since it was available, I would love to see an objective piece comparing the two without finger pointing. I have taken both exams (not just the Gateway) and I can say that there is a big difference in my mind between the two. I taught the SHRM Learning System when it was for the HRCI exam for years and now I teach the SHRM Learning System for the SHRM-CP and SCP exams. I may not be an expert but I think I know both pretty well, unless HRCI has made major changes in the last couple of years.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Ben Post author

      Hey, John! Thanks for commenting. I have approached SHRM about a similar piece and am still waiting to hear back from them.

      Bobbi, Thanks for your comments. I will make sure that HRCI sees them. Hopefully they realize a significant portion of their customer base is tied in due to those local SHRM contacts.

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