SHRM President and CEO to Employers: Require Certification

‘There’s a science to HR. Not everyone can do it.’

By Rena Gorlin August 1, 2018
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How can business best leverage the talents of the HR profession? Make SHRM certification mandatory for your HR staff, said Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP.  

Taylor earned his SHRM designation in 2016, a year before he was named to his current post. His enthusiasm about the value of SHRM certification has only increased since he began leading the organization.  

"Require certification," Taylor said. "SHRM certification is a validation that the professional doing the job has the competency to do it. Treat HR like a profession. Don't just prefer—require!"  

Taylor has been a prominent attorney specializing in labor and employment law and a global corporate executive, and he drew on those experiences to clarify HR's essential role: "If an organization takes its financial resources and legal risks seriously, it hires highly competent, certified and licensed finance and legal talent.  

"In the same vein, if employers want to ensure that they optimize their investment in human capital, they must hire highly competent, certified HR professionals. Those who expect—and accept—less from their HR experts are not going to be competitive in the new knowledge economy."  

HR's primary value to employers is recruiting and keeping talented workers, Taylor said: "It's not so easy to get the right human capital." 

HR professionals with a SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP have greater value because they have a thorough understanding of the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge and can "help the organization implement a high-impact human capital strategy," he said.  

Don't Underestimate HR 

Problems in the workplace often arise, Taylor said, because "everyone thinks they understand and know HR—but they don't." He tackled this issue in his book, The Trouble with HR: Finding and Keeping the Best People (Amacom, 2009). Nearly a decade later, however, underestimation and misunderstanding of the HR profession persists.  

"There's a science to HR: how people think, what motivates them, how the human brain works," Taylor said. "Because so many people are 'practicing' HR without the requisite knowledge and experience, we find ourselves as a society dealing with situations like #MeToo [the movement to expose and end sexual harassment], expensive turnover, pay disparities and other workplace challenges—all of which make it harder for organizations and businesses to achieve success." 

Pay equity, for example, remains elusive, Taylor said, "because people don't understand it. But they would [understand pay equity] if they were SHRM-certified." 

SHRM-CPs and SHRM-SCPs have demonstrated that they possess the behavioral competencies and technical expertise necessary to resolve such problems more effectively, he said.  

At the Top and Aiming Higher 

What motivated Taylor to seek his own SHRM credential? When he took the SHRM-SCP exam, Taylor was president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the largest nonprofit organization representing historically black colleges and universities; he was neither working in the HR field nor under consideration for the top slot at SHRM. Why did he think this pursuit was worth his time and effort?  

"This was actually my second run at getting my HR credential," Taylor said. "I had taken and passed the SPHR certification exam when I was general counsel and head of HR at Paramount Pictures Live Entertainment. I had known SHRM as a member, from serving on the board of directors for 10 years and being board chair from 2005 to 2006.  

"Fast-forward to 2015: I'm a CEO and no longer in HR when I hear that SHRM has introduced its own certification program. Immediately I thought, 'I should do that!' "  

Even for a CEO, he said, "70 percent of the work is people work. Business strategy follows people strategy: how to get, keep and motivate people. The right HR can make a successful business. So I understood the value of obtaining HR certification from SHRM."  

Unexpected Challenges—and Benefits 

Taylor had let his SPHR certification lapse and was not eligible for the online pathway to SHRM certification, so he got a copy of SHRM's study materials and prepared for the exam on his own.  

Studying for and taking the SHRM certification exam can be challenging for recent graduates of college or professional school or for early-career HR professionals. But the process can also prove to be a challenge for veteran practitioners, which may come as a surprise. 

Taylor described how his extensive experience in law and business "both helped and hurt" his test-taking performance. "I thought, 'How hard could this be? I passed three bar exams!' I underestimated it."  

On the way to passing the SHRM-SCP exam, Taylor made some personal and professional discoveries. 

"What distinguishes SHRM certification is that it measures what we do in real life. One reason I took the test was to see how my real-life HR practice compared. Had my decisions in similar scenarios been right?"   

Pursuing SHRM Certification Is Its Own Reward  

Preparation made a difference, Taylor said. 

"Studying showed me that I did know the answers, but I didn't know why. What you instinctively think is right may not be right; the right answer may be counterintuitive." 

Those lessons will prove valuable to test-takers both on the exam and on the job. 

"Later on, when you're stumped by a question in real life, the exam experience stays with you: 'Oh! That was the dilemma; now I see it!' You're more aware" tactically as well as strategically, he said.  

"An early-career HR professional is involved with the tactical details of doing things—family and medical leave, firings and so on. In a more senior role, you're less concerned with the everyday; you see the big picture, the strategic goals—how a firing helps or harms the whole organization," he said. 

"Since becoming SHRM-certified, I am better able to combine these approaches and ways of thinking. I have a new level of confidence that I'm making the right decisions."  

Promoting Professionalism 

SHRM certification is designed to advance individual HR practitioners, who, in turn, can advance the organizations that employ them, the HR profession and society as a whole. Taylor intends to make the importance of SHRM certification more widely known—not just among HR professionals, but also among employers, educators, the general public and other constituencies.  

That goal dovetails with SHRM's new campaign to promote HR as a positive social force and change engine: "Together Forward." 

"It's another way for the world to see HR as a profession," Taylor said. "HR has to build a perception of professionalism. It has to be more than just a perception—but perception does matter. If we want to be seen and treated as a profession, we have to act like one."  

He is encouraged by the rise of certifications in other fields. Many computer-related jobs, for instance, now require the CISSP designation (Certified Information Systems Security Professional). 

"One definition of a profession is that not just anyone can do it," Taylor said. "There have to be some barriers, such as an independent certifying body that says, 'You're safe to practice.' The public can be protected with good HR."  

A technical advisory committee, the SHRM Certification Commission, is responsible for ensuring the quality, impartiality and integrity of every aspect of the SHRM certification program.  

Getting and Maintaining the Right Credential  

Taylor urged HR novices to obtain their SHRM-CP within a couple of years of entering the workforce. And he encouraged all HR professionals to "embrace certification and renewal. For HR professionals, that means revitalizing the profession. For SHRM-certified individuals, it means maintaining your credential."  

Recertification is vital to ensure that HR professionals keep up their competencies and knowledge, Taylor said. 

"Things constantly change. HR has changed significantly in my two decades of practice. You can know HR today and not know it five years from now. The use of artificial intelligence in HR applications is just one example. We also have a multigenerational workforce, and they all think differently. HR must be able to think differently too."  

This article is an edited version of the original two-part profile, published in SHRM Certification Update on May 24 and June 14, 2018.  

Rena Gorlin, J.D., is an independent writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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