HR Administration

SHRM’s Game of Chance

By Rick Bell

Aug. 3, 2014

For close to 40 years, the HR Certification Institute has been a sort-of “Jeopardy”-meets-“Wheel of Fortune” solution to validate HR practitioners’ professional credentials. Answer a lengthy, complex series of people-management questions correctly – “I’ll take ‘Benefits Potpourri’ for $800, Alex” – and Vanna White could be flipping the appropriate consonants to inscribe on your HR certificate.

“I’ll take a ‘P,’ Pat; spinnn …. I’ll take an ‘H,’ Pat; spinnn … I’ll take an ‘R,’ and I’d like to solve the puzzle: PHR!”

Another winner. And by HRCI’s count there are about 130,000 successful letter-flippin’ HR pros. Some moved to the bonus round, solving, spinning and spelling SPHR and GPHR, too.

In May a new player stormed HRCI’s stage, and it appears this show is no summer replacement. In fact, the challenger has put HRCI in jeopardy of seeing its long-running credentialing contest become a “game of overthrowns.”

The Society for Human Resource Management roared headlong into the certification competition late this spring, leaving the distinct impression that the organization intends to spin HRCI and its cadre of certification letters into irrelevance. Think that can’t happen? You think that nearly four decades of certifying HR practitioners is enough to sustain a rosy future for HRCI?

Think again.

SHRM’s pockets are deeper than Alex Trebek’s knowledge of obscure Russian literature (“I’m sorry; there were only four brothers Karamazov; Smerdyakov was a half-brother — allegedly”). The HR association’s annual conference in June was a daily baptism for 15,000-plus attendees in the glories of recertifying under SHRM’s estimable umbrella. And you know that SHRM’s as-yet unnamed independent board tasked with overseeing the credentials program will be a New York Yankees-esque all-star lineup featuring HR’s heaviest hitters.

SHRM’s program will be new and glitzy. We will no doubt hear over and over that the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP designations are must-haves to advance your HR career. And while I believe many in HR are loyal to HRCI, how do you compete with that kind of money and power? There is very little that HRCI can do in the face of SHRM’s plan for certification domination. Unless …

As Pee-wee Herman once said, everybody’s got a big but: But, what if your boss doesn’t know the difference between an SPHR and a PHR? More importantly, what if he or she doesn’t care? You’ve heard the mantra a dozen times: It’s bottom-line results, not some HR-concocted
alphabet soup that ultimately gets my attention.

If a PHR is DOA in his or her eyes, what will make your supervisor care about a SHRM-SCP? For all the money, all the PR and all the evangelizing that SHRM will be trumpeting between now and New Year’s Day, they’re ultimately preaching to the choir. Short of tapping Elon Musk, Marissa Mayer and Mary Barra to join its certification board, if your boss didn’t care the day before SHRM launched its certification assault in May, chances are he or she won’t care today. Or tomorrow. Or the first week of January.

Which is how SHRM could lose this game, or at least make it concede and say “uncle.” HRCI, the classic underdog if there ever was one, could live another day and beyond if the only people who care about this knockdown, drag-out clash of the certification titans is HR practitioners.

HR people care about their credentials. Passionately. And that’s where SHRM has underestimated HRCI. SHRM revoked HRCI leaders’ memberships and barred them from its conference. HRCI quickly vacated the building it shared with SHRM.

Anger and confusion is bubbling through the HR ranks. Plenty of HR pros are visibly disgusted with the way SHRM has steamrolled HRCI. Check the message boards, read the letters page of our magazine and take a look at the dozens of comments following our stories online. There is dissension among the chapters, talk of splinter groups and possibly running alternative candidates for the SHRM board. It’s HR skulduggery at its finest.

SHRM has already spent millions of dollars on this initiative and will likely spend millions more during its rollout. This is a high-stakes game, and you can bet SHRM is playing to win. And to come out on top, SHRM’s success largely rests with the letter C … as in CEO, CFO and COO. Get their buy-in and Vanna will be flipping a fresh set of certification letters for that blustery new contestant. But if the boss’ attention is elsewhere, well, SHRM just spent a whole lot of its members’ money on a system that wasn’t all that broke in the first place.

You win “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” through guile, intelligence, patience and a little luck. SHRM’s take-no-prisoners approach hasn’t yet proven to be the winning formula. It’s still the early rounds, but if the C-suite ignores calls for help, there’s a good chance SHRM could spin the wheel and end up losing a turn. Or worse.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. To comment, email

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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