Welcome to HR! Certification vs. Competence

By Wayne Brockbank, Dave Ulrich | February 27, 2018
Having spent much of our careers working to upgrade HR professionals, let us offer three insights into the HR certification vs. competence quandary.

This article was written in collaboration with Wayne Brockbank.

A close friend’s daughter chose to go into HR. She asked her mom if she should “certify” in HR, and her mom asked us. At one level, this straightforward question has a simple and obvious answer: Yes. Her second question was how. On this level, certifying as an HR professional becomes a bit complicated since the HR certification/competence field has been cluttered and confusing. Having spent much of our careers working to upgrade HR professionals, let us offer three insights into the HR certification vs. competence quandary.

First, certification and competence are both the same and different.

Many, if not most, professions (medical doctors, nurses, architects, tradesmen, financial planners, and certain service industry workers) have some version of certification, licensing, or accreditation standards. Attorneys pass a bar exam; psychologists are licensed after passing a standardized exam; “certified” public accountants (CPAs) pass a knowledge exam; etc. In all these cases, the certification process determines the extent to which an individual possesses basic professional knowledge and skills. These certifications provide public recognition for the profession and increased confidence in working with individual professionals who are “certified.”

Certification does not always mean competence however. Many attorneys, psychologists, accountants, and others have become certified, but it does not mean that they are competent enough yet to be successful. Certified professionals probably know enough to avoid destroying value for their clients, but they may not know enough to create value. All of us know individuals who are licensed because of expertise, but we would not hire them to work for us.

The blend of certification and competence is laid out in table 1. This table may help clarify the HR certification vs. competence quandary in the field today. In cells 1 and 4, certification and competence match each other: cell 1 (not certified / low competence) are those that are not (yet) qualified because of their inability to meet even the expectations for certified HR professionals; cell 4 (yes certified / high competence) are individuals who are certified and high-performing, exceptional HR professionals. But cell 2 (yes certified / low competence) represents those who may know enough to certify but do not transfer knowledge into action yet and need more experience. Cell 3 (not certified / high competence) includes those who may have great skills and instincts in HR but chose not to prepare for and meet certification requirements.

Table 1: Certification vs. Competence
Low High
Certification Yes 2
Licensed but unproven
Exceptional professional
No 1
Yikes! Watch out
Highly competent but bypassed certification

Second, certification establishes professional standards.

HR certification ensures that HR professionals know the basic body of knowledge (theory and research) that underlies HR.

Today, HR certification follows a federated model. For example, in the United States, psychologist licensing and attorney bar examinations follow a federated model with each state offering credentials for its own region. Likewise, almost every country or regional HR professional group has a certification process that licenses HR professionals within its geography. A few HR certifications illustrate how to use HR certification to further the overall field and improve personal professionalism.

  • Australia HR Institute (AHRI) encourages certification for HR professionals to get ahead in their career and meet the standards of the profession. Businesses that employ a certified HR practitioner increase the likelihood that their HR business partners can benefit their organization. AHRI also offers certification pathways, each of which requires more experience, which in turn should improve competence (moving from cell 2 to cell 4 of table 1).
  • Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK has multiple levels of certification. These levels have been developed for HR and L&D (leadership and development) professionals who are looking to develop higher degrees of understanding. The CIPD approach helps members to specialize/consult in an area of practice. The advanced level of study requires a considerable amount of professional experience and is ideally suited to practitioners with operational, tactical, or strategic responsibility. Qualifying for the advanced diploma also demonstrates required professional experience at a higher level of competence.
  • Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) offers seven levels of HR certification from “Associate Professional” to “Senior Professional in HR-International.” HRCI offers rigorous certification as well as continuous learning excellence in order to advance global HR practices. HRCI claims that its certified professionals usually boast reputations for having greater skills and knowledge needed to mitigate workplace risks and enhance people-driven business results.
  • The Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) in Singapore has been set up by the tripartite partners: the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). The purpose of the IHRP certification is to strengthen the HR standards of excellence in Singapore and offer a formal professionalization of the HR function.
  • Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers two certifications: SHRM-CP for early to mid-career HR professionals, and SHRM-SCP for senior-level HR practitioners. Earning a SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP credential helps enhance the expertise and credibility for HR professionals who seek to be recognized experts in the HR field. With such recognition, SHRM-certified HR professions are on the path to being an asset in helping their organizations be more competitive in today’s economy. This professional distinction sets certified individuals apart from their colleagues by verifying their high levels of knowledge and skills.

Each of these (and many other) HR professional associations has developed HR certification assessments (often based on credentials, exams, and experience) to define and improve standards for HR. These expectations may vary by geography since many employment practices depend on specific country legislation and culture.

Third, competence requires the transfer of knowledge into action.

There are many efforts to determine the necessary competencies for HR professionals. A summary of these approaches to competence can be found in a synthesis in HR “Food Groups” reported in People and Strategy. HR competency models are not just what the HR professionals know and do (often tested in certification) but how HR knowledge and skills affect key personal and business outcomes. “What are the competencies of HR professionals?” is the wrong question. The right question is: “How do the competencies of HR professionals affect key personal and business outcomes?” HR competencies are not readily assessed through self-report assessments but by how others recognize, observe, and experience those competencies. HR competencies change as business requirements change, whereas certification assessments are more static. HR competencies may also vary by institutional factors such as geographical region, industry, organization size, and strategy; and by personal factors such as responsibility level, tenure, age, and job assignment. Thus HR certification is good but it is only the start.

So, the more complex answer to our friend’s daughter is first, congratulations on choosing HR as a career!!! You have the potential to have enormous impact on people, organizations, customers, shareholders, and communities. Second, HR has become a profession with a body of knowledge that will enable you to be effective. Third, certify and demonstrate to yourself and others that you have mastered that knowledge. Fourth, see your certification as the starting point of knowledge and skills. Go forth and create value through what you have learned through the certification process. Finally, continue to build your competence so that you can have impact on outcomes that matter.

Welcome to HR!

To learn more about how The RBL Group helps organizations develop Strategic HR Professionals, please click here.

Wayne Brockbank is a Clinical Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner emeritus at The RBL Group. His research, writing, and teaching has helped shape the development of the strategic HR management field, and he has consulted with major corporations throughout the world.  

About the author

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author
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