SHRM Certification: A Q&A with Wayne Cascio

Wayne Cascio, chair of SHRM’s Certification Commission, explains why the new competency-based credentials will give you an edge.

By Bill Leonard May 1, 2015
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Wayne Cascio

As chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Certification Commission, Wayne Cascio is working to ensure that the new SHRM competency-based certification achieves the highest professional standards possible.

HR Magazine talked with him about his work and the progress of the commission and the certification program. Cascio is the Robert H. Reynolds Chair in Global Leadership and distinguished professor of management at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Business.

Why should HR professionals pursue the SHRM certification?

Certification is becoming common in many professions, and HR management is no exception. It is definitely a seal of approval for employers. It shows that the professionals they hire are competent in the key focal areas of the profession and can bring value to an organization.

Why did SHRM make the new certification competency-based?

These HR competencies are key differentiators between the SHRM certification and other HR-related certifications. The SHRM program really focuses on the ability “to do” and not just “to know.” Prior HR-related certifications have emphasized a professional’s knowledge. But just because you know something doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do anything with it.

The CPA [certified public accountant] credential or any medical certifications require you to demonstrate the competence to do something. We need to send a signal to employers that this is the direction in which the HR profession is moving, as well. It’s not just that people know the technical aspects of the field, but also that they can use that information to solve and address important business issues.

How were the SHRM competencies developed?

The competency model began with a very rigorous job analysis, which involved the global HR community. SHRM began by running 111 focus groups with about 1,200 HR practitioners from 33 countries. They represented a diverse range of HR professionals from many different career levels, industry sectors and organization sizes. These focus groups provided invaluable input in helping to identify the critical competencies needed for success as an HR professional. Nine critical competencies were identified, known as the SHRM BoCK—the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge.

The next step was a content-validation survey to confirm the importance, relevance and, possibly most importantly, the universality of these competencies. There were a series of large-scale, multi-organizational, criterion-related validity studies with HR professionals and their supervisors. The point of these studies was to show that proficiencies in these competencies are tightly linked to success on the job as an HR professional. SHRM wants to know that what it is measuring really does predict success as someone’s career progresses.

Are other professional certification programs moving toward competency models?

The trend in several HR associations is to move beyond just having technical knowledge in the HR field toward having the ability to apply that knowledge. For example, the Australian HR Institute and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the U.K. are working closely together and looking at competencies. The question that everyone is grappling with right now is: How do you develop an assessment process that will reliably and validly measure if someone possesses critical competencies? SHRM has chosen to use situational judgment tests to do that. The tests present a range of actual scenarios. Each one offers four possible responses and asks what the best one is. The key consideration here is that SHRM is developing situations that actually reflect key HR competencies.

What is the role of the SHRM Certification Commission in the process?

We had our first meeting in December 2014, and I think it’s very important that people first understand how the commission is structured. There is a maximum of 13 people on the commission, and currently we have 11. At least three have to be HR professionals, at least two must be academic members, at least two must represent employer interests, and then there are two general-interest members, which are optional positions.

The commission has a broad charter. It oversees, monitors and approves certification requirements and applicant eligibility. In addition, it looks at the examinations, recertification processes and granting of credentials. A very important aspect of the commission will be to provide guidance for the exams. Fortunately, we have an excellent commission that includes industrial and organizational psychologists who are highly skilled and up-to-date on competency assessments, and they are critiquing what SHRM has done. The commission members are asking tough questions, and now is the time to ask tough questions. This ultimately will benefit everyone who pursues a SHRM certification over the long term.

Even more impressive from my perspective is that SHRM and the team that has put the program together have been really open to listening and thinking about the long-term situation and what ultimately will be the best way to approach certification.

Is the SHRM Certification Commission an independent body?

Absolutely. We must have a wall between what the commission does, what the exam-development teams do and what the competency-assessment teams do. As an independent commission, we can ask a lot of questions about the program and, believe me, we do. So far, there has been very active and lively interaction.

I particularly like having employer representatives on the commission in addition to HR professionals, academic members and general-interest members. The employer representatives provide a very important check and balance on what is feasible and practical for employers. This is very important because we need employer buy-in.

Of course, we need buy-in from the HR community, but we also require it from the broader C-suite community—the senior-level managers who develop and set business strategies. We want them on board with this, and we want them to see certified HR professionals as people who can really add value. In my view, this is critical. For years, we have talked about HR people being business partners. If you look at the competencies that the SHRM program is certifying, they are all business-related: communication, relationship management, ethical practice, HR expertise, business acumen, critical evaluation, leadership and navigation, consultation, and global and cultural effectiveness.

What’s your role as chair of the Certification Commission?

I serve as the key interface, if you will, between the commission and the SHRM certification team. So we have a lot of conversations, outside of meetings, and the team sometimes asks me for advice on how to proceed on certain issues. I also work with SHRM to set the agendas for the commission meetings.

In these meetings, I’m sort of like the conductor of an orchestra. My job is to keep the meeting moving forward and keep everyone on task, so that we don’t digress too much. At the same time, I have to make sure that the commission is focusing on all the key issues that we need to address. It’s a very healthy interface, but at the same time we, as the commission, must be 100 percent independent. We must represent the interests of the HR community at large.

What skills and experiences do you bring to the table as commission chair?

I chaired the U.S. technical advisory group from 2011 to 2013 that was developing international HR standards. My job then was to represent the interests of the United States HR community in the international meetings, and I had to manage around 40 members of the technical advisory group.

I also chaired the board of the SHRM Foundation and have held a number of leadership roles in HR-related associations. Chairing the SHRM Certification Commission is a job that I am honored to have and one that I take very seriously.

We on the commission have a chance to use what we know and have built up through a lifetime of experience to help develop an HR certification process that is truly state of the art. In addition, we have the chance to create something that HR professionals want to aspire to—that is, SHRM certification, because they see it is as a valuable asset to furthering their careers.

What is your vision or goal for the Commission?

The commission would like this certification process to become popular around the globe. The longer-term view is that we have developed an assessment program that works well now, but we would like to take it to another level in the next three to five years. The goal is to incorporate the latest thinking in the HR field about the best ways to do assessments in a manner that will serve large numbers of people.

I hope we’re able to reach a point where the testing is mobile and Internet-based. It’s the way technology and the world is moving, and if we can make the process more convenient and user-friendly, then more people will seek professional certification.

Another important goal is to demonstrate that the professionals who went through the certification process perform better on the job than those who didn’t. This will be a key issue in terms of demonstrating the value of the certification to employers.

Is the certification program on track to meet its 2015 goals?

It’s absolutely on track at the moment, and it’s the kind of program that will need continuous calibration. For example, if SHRM is using situational judgment tests, then there may be situations that are perfectly appropriate and applicable today but may not be tomorrow.

A lot of the feedback we received from those who took the pilot test was very positive. Many of them said, “These are situations that I face each day in my job.” We need to keep receiving this kind of feedback over and over again, to make sure the exam questions and situations are timely and relevant.

How do you make sure that this continuous calibration occurs?

The commission needs to receive regular reports from SHRM about pass rates and the feedback SHRM receives about the exam, while at the same time to regularly assess the currency of situations on the exam. We live in what the U.S. military calls a “VUCA” world—that is, a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We keep hearing about what living in this world means to business and how business models can change overnight. As a profession, HR must be responsive to this.

The SHRM Certification Commission has a very important role to play in all of this. To appreciate that, consider six important features that are represented by another acronym, PESTLE: the political, economic, social, technical, legal and environmental factors that are affecting and reshaping our world. If we follow through and concentrate on these, it will keep the certification program up-to-date and relevant to what businesses need from HR professionals.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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