Which HR Certification is Better? An Analysis of the SHRM-CP and PHR [Updated 2021]

Last week I received an interesting question that echoed what I’ve seen from dozens of people around the new year:

I came across this discussion while trying to formulate an argument supporting the value and credibility of the SHRM-CP credential.

I have years years of HR experience and about five years ago, I started looking at HRCI and the PHR certification. Eventually, I hit the experience AND degree requirements to take the PHR, but decided to go with the certification offered by SHRM, thinking that a credential offered directly by the society would hold equal if not more weight.

My immediate supervisor is PHR credentialed. When I announced that I had earned my SHRM-CP credential, the response was underwhelming and I was left with the impression that they are not convinced that it is on par with the PHR credential.

We are in the process of updating a Professional Development policy for our company and I'd really like to be able to present an argument for recognizing the SHRM-CP as equivalent to the PHR. I've done a bit of looking online, but have yet to see anything that clearly compares the two credentials.

Over the last few years, the piece I wrote about the PHR vs the SHRM-CP certifications has been seen hundreds of thousands of times. I’ve had dozens of comments and questions from people, and over time my thoughts have changed a bit and have become more clear. Plus, some of the actions of the certifying bodies themselves are changing how I view the world. First, let’s address the question at hand.

If you are curious about the SPHR and the SHRM-SCP as a senior HR professional, check out this piece that examines the differences in the exams and which you should take

phr shrm-cp hr certificationWhat Do the SHRM-CP and PHR Certifications Cover?

The PHR exam is offered by HRCI and covers some key areas of practice for today’s HR leaders:

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

Take our Quiz to See Which Exam is Right for You

It’s important to look at the weight of each content area, because that’s what HRCI judges are the most applicable areas for early career HR pros. Workforce planning and employment focuses heavily on recruiting and managing workers and the legal aspects surrounding those decisions. The second heaviest area is on employee and labor relations. Despite unions only being present in 10% of U.S. workplaces, this has a heavy weight because it’s something that HR must run point on in the event that collective bargaining is required.

It’s very easy to see in each area what kinds of content you would expect. In HR Development, you’ll find content on training and employee growth. In Risk Management, you’ll find information on safety and security. It’s really straightforward.

Alternatively, the SHRM-CP exam is broken into different types of competencies.

  • Leadership: Leadership and navigation, ethical practice
  • Interpersonal: Relationship management, communication, and global/cultural effectiveness
  • Business: Business acumen, consultation, critical evaluation

Within each of these areas we could touch on a variety of HR facets. Instead of being broken out by functional area, as HR roles often are at larger companies, SHRM looks at the HR profession through the lens of a handful of key qualities that each person should have in order to advance and succeed in the profession.

It’s not as clear at first glance how the competencies actually shake out, though. Let’s take the navigation competency for a moment. The SHRM-CP would test someone’s ability to understand formal and informal work roles leader goals, and relationships between employees. The SHRM-SCP, on the other hand, would look at these same relationships through the lens of an executive, understanding that higher-level insight and interaction. This is just one competency, but it shows how they can vary from the CP to the Senior CP exams.

Which HR Certification is Better?

When SHRM created the certifications, they didn’t necessarily “map” them to the two options already on the table intentionally, but when they created their Pathway tool to help currently certified individuals transfer their certification to SHRM for free, SHRM very much made it clear that they saw the PHR as equivalent to SHRM-CP and the SPHR equivalent to SHRM-SCP in the nature and quality of the certification. 

That said, after talking with students taking both exams, talking with instructors for both exams, and looking at the test prep tools we provide and the students using them to take ALL FOUR exam types (if we don’t include the aPHR, which people often use our courses for), I have started to create a sort of divide in my mind.

  • If you want to prove your knowledge and mastery of HR-related business law, an understanding of the general concepts and theories underlying HR, and you work in HR at an organization with under 250 people, the PHR is going to be very helpful to you. This is because we are counted on in these roles (especially at smaller companies) to know the legal aspects and the SHRM exam does not cover them fully.
  • If you want to use the SHRM career resources, learn some intangible aspects of HR like leadership, consulting behaviors, and navigating your career, and you work at a larger or mature organization, then the SHRM-CP may be a better bet. That’s because the larger the company, the larger the HR team, and you might not need to be a specialist on HR laws and compliance to excel and move forward.

This is obviously my opinion, but when I look at the content each exam covers and how I have used it in my career (plus the dozens of interviews with HR leaders since the HRCI/SHRM split a few years back), this is the best way I can define the difference in the two exams.

That said, the recertification process also ties in to this discussion somewhat. It’s an area I will touch on very soon because just yesterday I heard more than a dozen angry HR leaders talking about how upset they were about one of the provider’s methods of awarding credits. There’s a hidden battle going on over your recertification credits and you might not even know it’s happening!

These are mine, but what are your thoughts? Is either certification more valuable than the other? What has been your experience? 

27 thoughts on “Which HR Certification is Better? An Analysis of the SHRM-CP and PHR [Updated 2021]

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  3. Brett Hardebeck

    Does anyone have any thoughts? I am trying to figure out if I should take the SHRM CP or the PHR Test. I have 9 years of HR exp. currently working as a HRBP. Thanks

    1. Ben Post author

      Hey, Brett! Depending on your company size and your career goals, one of them might fit better. In terms of purely being recognized by the hiring community as a show of your professional skills, HRCI certifications are requested about four times as often as SHRM certifications.

    2. Federico Martelli

      Hi Brett,

      I started one year ago in HR as Data Management Professional, without any previous experience in the field. After one year, I figured out that I’d like to pursue the HRBP career path.
      Which of the above mentioned certification would you recommend? I was thinking to start with the aPHRi as first step, but what should come next in order to aim to an HRBP role in a consistent way?

      Many thanks!

  4. Brett Hardebeck

    Thanks has anyone used Benchprep to prepare for the PHR? How long do focus recommend that that one studies before taking the PHR?

    1. Alyssa

      I used it for the PHR and I passed with ease. The practice was way more difficult than the test, in my experience.

    1. Katherine A Carter

      Ben – thank you for the information. do you have an ebook for the SPHR study series?

  5. Krista

    I transitioned to the SHRM-SCP when it came out and didn’t renew my SPHR. To your point, there is not much employment law in the SHRM materials. However, I am finding their competency model to be very helpful in developing my team. I am planning to focus on one competency each quarter.

  6. Ke

    If I have completed my masters in HR with a specialization in strategic change management and innovation and only have 8 wks internship experience thus far do you think I should look at getting a certification? My university is offering the SHRM certification at a reduce price and in my career goals obviously after gaining much needed experience I would like to open my own consultancy firm.

    What are your thoughts on being certified and which would be best for a beginner like myself?

    1. Jaymee

      Ke – I recommend reviewing the requirements for both the SHRM and HRCI. I believe with a MS degree, you need mim. of 1 year of professional HR experience. I am not sure if the 8 weeks of internship will satisfy that requirements. You may consider the aPHR for those who are still relatively new to HR and consider another certification once you’v met the requirements.

  7. Jaymee

    To me, the question is not which certification is better. As HR professionals, what we should ask instead which certifications will help my organization meet their strategic goals? What does holding the ________ certification means for my current position, future personal goals and my employer(s)?

    There is no correct answer to what certification is best and being transparent, it’s a personal choice. Truth be told, they both are highly sought after certifications and employers respect them both as equals.

    When deciding which certification is better for you, I recommend reviewing the testing requirements for the HRCI and SHRM and based on those functions, determine which test better helps you meet your employers strategic goals.

    I will say that I believe there will come a point and time where the job market will prefer candidates to have both certifications. Watch the market trends. Currently, many employers are preferring and some downright requiring PHR/SHRM-CP (either at hire or within a specific time frame after being on-boarded). Don’t spend time getting caught up in the politics and the debate of “which one is better?” The answer answer is not black and white.

    1. Ben Post author

      @Jaymee if you read the piece you know that it didn’t say one was better or not, it said it depends on what you and your employer need. :-)

  8. Ana Robinson

    i am getting ready to take over our HR Manager role for a company that has about 400 employees. The current HR team only has 2 employees (HR Director and Assistant). I don’t have any certificates but i have been with the company for 13 years and have worked off and on with HR. I need to take some HR certificates to ensure i know everything (almost everything) i need to know in order to be sucessful as the HR manager. I plan to take this role in 2 years. What would you recommend: PHR and HRCI or SHRM-SCP? Are there other recommendations out there?

    1. Ben Post author

      @Ana I would recommend the HRCI certifications as you’re in a relatively small/midsize organization and compliance and knowledge is more quickly applicable than the strategy/navigation pieces from the SHRM certification.

  9. Craig Beveridge

    I have been a Recruiting Manager for 6+ years and would like to expand my knowledge into broader HR principles in hopes of one day being the head of HR. Should I focus on the SPHR or SHRM-SCP? Judging from the descriptions the SPHR exam seems to cover more tangible HR concepts.

  10. Liz

    Ben, My husband’s employer is relocating us from CA to CO. I have held the same position for over 20 years which is a mix of HR and operations duties in the healthcare private practice environment, highhandedly responsible for all HR needs of 95 employees. I am looking for the certification that will be the most flexible and marketable since I don’t know yet what field I will end up in, but am aware that CA labor laws can be quite different than other states. I would appreciate any recommendations!

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  12. Christine

    I just took the SHRM SCP test and failed. I would highly agree with the comments so far. I have worked in HR 10 years, am currently and HR Director and took HR Management at a university. I feel that in order to be successful with the SHRM SCP, you need to have been at a VP level of a global corporation. There were a lot of situational judgement questions and unless you’ve been in those exact situations, they are very tricky to answer. I am regretting not signing up for the CP test. I am now considering the HRCI – PHR test as I feel the remarks about working in smaller organization fits my experience better.

  13. Veronica Lopez

    Hi! i currently work for a company that has 35 employees in the traffic engineering industry. I am the only HR employee and have an admin assistant under me. I just recently completed a 2 year HR Management Certification program though UCSD extension. I am looking into getting HR Certified but unsure as to what certification would be ideal, either the SHRM-CP or the PHR through HRCI. Recommendations?

    1. Ben Post author

      @Veronica, if you’re newer to HR I would say the PHR would be really relevant for you at a smaller org.

  14. Casey

    I currently work for a Public Employer and just took the SPHR exam this morning and passed. Test material was very difficult (not impossibly difficult), and many questions were from a private employment point of view. In fact, upon reflection, I was surprised so many of my questions dealt with Mergers & Acquisitions.

    But to answer the original question, I decided to take the SPHR exam over the SHRM-SCP because the former seems to be more widely accepted in the HR field. ~Good luck to all of you in your certification persuits.

  15. Sobhi

    I am living in Dubai, worked for a long time in HR, and published a book about HR in Arabic.
    Now I need an accredited certification in HR and want to open a training center where I can teach it.
    As the law is different in the Middle East, which certificate is better for international students from the third world who want to learn the best practices in HR and Human Capital management?

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