Certify This! The Role of Competency-Based Certification in HR

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Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, Senior VP, Knowledge Development, SHRM

Alex AlonsoAlexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is the Society for Human Resource Management's senior vice president for Knowledge Development and served as the head of examination development and operations for SHRM's Certified Professional and Senior Certified Professional certifications. He is responsible for all research activities, including the development of the SHRM HR Competency Model. He oversees the teams responsible for research products such as PeopleInsight engagement tools, SHRM Benchmarking Services, and the Workplace and Employment Trends Center.

In recent years, we have heard varying perspectives on certification across a number of professions.1 In the world of education, certification is the gold seal of approval that you can handle classroom instruction and difficult situations any child can pose. In the realm of accounting, certification is different, serving as a barrier for entry into the profession and guaranteeing a minimum level of competency. 

In the domain of association management, certification is a signal to the world that a certificant holds the requisite knowledge and skill set to successfully lead a society or federation. All of these certifications operate under one guiding principle—a professional must not only know but also do the job according to an acceptable standard. In the land of human resources, certification has focused too heavily on what professionals know and not enough on what they can do.

The lack of focus on what someone can do as an HR professional has led to three phenomena: 1) a desire to split HR into strategic and tactical components,2 2) a cadre of executive HR leaders who see little to no value in certification,3 and 3) a decline in the sheer number of individuals seeking HR certification because of lacking job relevance. This has led to an overwhelming majority of business stakeholders feeling HR capabilities do not match their needs for workforce planning and management.

The gap between expectations and capabilities represents the greatest challenge for HR as operators of business strategy. What's worse is the fact that development of HR professionals is distinct from that of other business operators. HR is traditionally seen as a distant cousin to business when, in fact, it is the engine for competitive advantage. There is no greater evidence of this distant cousin status than the way HR professionals are developed relative to other managers and directors.

For HR, development begins with technical knowledge refined over the years with little emphasis on leadership competencies. For other business disciplines, leadership competencies are embedded in development from inception. The first class in HR is employment law and compliance. The first class for other business disciplines is strategy. The evidence of a gap is clear from the moment one enters the development process and is only reinforced through traditional development tools like training and certification. 

So we have a problem. The primary cause of this problem is misalignment between development of HR professionals and the strategic needs of stakeholders. This is exhibited in every stage of HR development, where a competency-based approach is eschewed for pure knowledge-based learning and testing. What is the solution? Shifting the focus to develop HR professionals from cradle to grave using a competency- based system.

On HBO's "Silicon Valley," the Pied Piper CEO would posit a "middle-out" approach, but I argue the solution is the reverse—a basic burning-the-candle-from-both-ends approach. That is, development of HR professionals should focus on competency-based learning from the start with education and at the other end with competency-based certification. Specifically, there are three key implications to this approach:

HR professionals warrant the same educational models as business leaders. HR can no longer be treated as a distant cousin to business. The key to changing this perspective is changing the model for selection and development of HR professionals as they evolve into leadership roles. Selection instruments for HR professionals should measure proficiency in both technical knowledge and behavioral competencies. 

Similarly, learning and development channels should offer training in both technical aspects and behavioral elements of successful human resource management. This approach is assured to have a cascading effect on organizational effectiveness. If HR professionals are selected and developed with this dual emphasis, their performance is likely to be higher; however, their experience will likely lead to revamped ways of selecting and developing others. This multiplicative effect will lead to a wider array of exponential prediction for organizational competency mix. This results in reduced costs associated with faulty selection4 and poor transfer of training.5

Certification for HR professionals must assess more than technical knowledge. Since the 1970s we have seen a rapid rise of competency-based certification as an innovation necessary for all professions. Over the last 40 years, we have witnessed advancements in testing and educational measurement, allowing for the measurement of proficiency more than mastery of information.

Some of the best examples of this are the use of portfolios to assess teacher excellence by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the implementation of practicum in-basket exercises in the Foreign Services Board exams, the development of practicum deliverables for assessing detail orientation and business acumen of accountants in American Institutes of Certified Public Accountants exams, and the deployment of situational judgment test items by the Association of American Medical Colleges to assess bedside manner and customer service orientation in medical residency candidates. 

In HR certification, the traditional model has resorted to assessing technical knowledge and its application at the lowest levels of Bloom's taxonomy for demonstrating mastery.6 This model will not suffice if we are to assess HR professionals' proficiency in the modern business world. New certifications like the SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) and SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) address the need for a dual emphasis on technical knowledge and behavioral proficiency. With this increased scope, HR certifications for leaders will need to keep up with the broadened competency mix and performance domain.

There needs to be a greater understanding of the link between competencies and organizational success. Organizational effectiveness is the ultimate goal when evaluating certifications and what they offer professionals and their employers. Most employers think of certifications as an assurance that professionals possess basic competencies needed to drive organizational success. This means certifications must have a demonstrated link to job performance. But current models of HR certification only account for one part of the equation, making them deficient in predicting the criterion. 

Consider the Individual Competency Formula to Organizational Effectiveness.7 The basic formula for organizational effectiveness based upon individual talents stipulates that organizational effectiveness (EO) is a function of total collective technical (T) knowledge and behavioral (B) competency in application divided by the product of culture (C) and resources (R). In human resource management terms, this is the formula for implementing success. The greater the talent pool of competencies, the more controlled the impact of culture and resources, the greater the likelihood of exponential organizational effectiveness.

If organizations seek success through effectiveness, the talent mix is the primary lever. This means effectiveness, as defined by the collection of competencies, is the leading indicator of competitive advantage, with HR's competencies as the frontline. All this places greater demand on building proficiency among HR professionals and certifying their ability to perform.

For years, HR professionals have been told that we are not part of the business family. This assertion is all wrong, and a close examination of competencies across various business disciplines, including HR, illustrates their connective tissue. The DNA of HR professionals is only distinct from other disciplines in its technical genome and the relative importance of key behavioral elements. The evidence base suggests HR professionals are not developed and certified the same way other professionals are.

The time for change is now as advancements in measurement, testing and performance appraisal make selecting, training and certifying HR professionals on more than technical knowledge a reality. Only selection instruments, performance management tools, training programs and certifications using a dual-emphasis competency-based approach will succeed in elevating the HR profession. Organizational success is depending on it.


1.     Martin, J. L. (1999). A true profession. Physical Therapy, 79, 978-990.

Kendall-Gallagher, D. & Blegen, M. A. (2009). Competence and certification of registered nurses and safety of patients in intensive care units. American Journal of Critical Care Medicine, 18, 106-113.

Knievel, I., Lindmeier, A. M., & Heinze, A. (2015). Beyond knowledge: Measuring primary teachers' subject-specific competences in and for teaching mathematics with items based on video vignettes. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 13, 309-329.

2.     Charan, R. (2014). It's time to split HR. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/07/its-time-to-split-hr.

3.     Boudreau, J., & Schmidt, A. A. (2014). Project FHR: A groundswell for disruptive change.

4.     Schmidt, F. & Hunter, J. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124(2), 262-274.

5.     Burke, L. A. & Hutchins, H. M. (2007). Training transfer: An integrative literature review and implications for future research. Human Resource Development Review, 6(3), 263-296.

6.     Whetzel, D. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). Situational judgment tests: An overview of current research. Human Resource Management Review, 19, 188-202.

7.     Alonso, A., Schmidt, A. A., Kurtessis, J. N., Strobel, K. R., & Dickson, B. (In press). Why everything you've been told about HR is wrong: A competency-based approach to elevating the profession. People & Strategy, 38, Special Issue.

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