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HR certifications for every career path

Prove your HR expertise — or start your HR career right — by earning one of these popular, lucrative HR certifications.

HR certifications for every career path

Professionals with an HR certification earn higher salaries and receive more promotions than those without a certification. Certification also helps professionals move into specialized career paths. 

What is an HR certification? Certifications demonstrate your career-related competencies and experience. Professional organizations offer HR certifications that demonstrate human resources, global human resources, and HR management expertise. After meeting eligibility requirements and passing an exam, professionals earn the credential.

Our guide walks through certification providers, the most common certifications, and the payoff of becoming a certified human resources professional.

What is an HR certification?

An HR certification demonstrates mastery over key competencies and skills related to human resources. Unlike a human resources certificate program, which is offered through a college and trains students for human resources careers, a certification recognizes prior experience and expertise. 

Candidates for certification must meet experience and schooling eligibility requirements. They then pass an exam that tests their HR knowledge and skills. After earning a credential, professionals often need to recertify regularly.

Benefits of certification

HR professionals pursue certifications to prove their knowledge and value to employers. According to PayScale's 2018 survey of 102,000 HR professionals, certification-holders earned higher salaries and more promotions than those without a certification. 

The survey also discovered more than one in three HR professionals holds some kind of certification.

HR certification providers 

Several professional associations grant human resources certifications. These associations bring a track record in training and professional development.

Society for Human Resource Management

The Society for Human Resource Management represents more HR professionals than any other membership organization. SHRM HR certifications take a competency-based approach. 

Candidates choose from two options: the SHRM Certified Professional and the SHRM Senior Certified professional credentials. Both demonstrate experience in core human resources competencies.

HR Certification Institute

The HR Certification Institute boasts over four decades of experience granting human resources certifications. Over half a million HR professionals hold a credential from HRCI. 

HRCI's many certification options include the Professional in Human Resources, Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), and global professional in human resources credentials. 

Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching 

The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching offers courses and certifications for professionals. 

Human resources specialists typically pursue the Certified Professional Coach credential. The certificate, part of iPEC's broader coach training options, recognizes experienced professional coaches. 

Association for Talent Development

The Association for Talent Development focuses on recruitment, training, and development. 

ATD offers two certifications for human resources professionals. The Certified Professional in Talent Development recognizes experienced training and development specialists. The Associate Professional in Talent Development offers an entry-level certification.

WorldatWork

A professional association dedicated to compensation specialists, WorldatWork offers several HR certification options. Popular picks include the Certified Compensation Professional and Global Remuneration Professional credentials. 

WorldatWork also offers certifications for executive compensation professionals, benefits professionals, and sales compensation professionals.

The most popular HR certifications

Which HR certification ranks as the most popular? This section introduces the most common HR certifications, according to PayScale. It also details eligibility requirements and fees for each.

Professional in Human Resources

Most popular certification

HR professionals who hold this cert: 17%

Offered by: HRCI

Eligibility requirements: One to four years of HR experience, depending on degree level

Application fee: $100

Exam fee: $395

The Professional in Human Resources credential demonstrates technical and operational experience in human resources management. Candidates complete a two-hour exam focused on labor relations, business management, and talent acquisition. The popular PHR credential appeals to a broad range of professionals.

SHRM Certified Professional

Show good judgment

HR professionals who hold this cert: 15%

Offered by: SHRM

Eligibility requirements: Up to four years' HR experience, depending on education level

Application fee: $50, included in exam fees

Exam fee: $300-$475, depending on registration date and SHRM membership

The SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) certification recognizes experienced HR professionals who can implement strategies, deliver human resources services, and carry out HR functions. 

The four-hour exam covers 160 questions, including situational judgment questions. SHRM-CP professionals can pursue the SHRM Senior Certified Professional credential.

Senior Professional in Human Resources

For the leaders

HR professionals who hold this cert: 8%

Offered by: HRCI

Eligibility requirements: Four to seven years of HR experience, depending on education level

Application fee: $100

Exam fee: $495

The Senior Professional in Human Resources credential demonstrates leadership experience in human resources. Certified professionals show their mastery of policy-making, strategic planning, and HR management. The 115-question exam covers leadership, strategy, employee relations, and talent planning. 

SHRM Senior Certified Professional

Show your experience

HR professionals who hold this cert: 5%

Offered by: SHRM

Eligibility requirements: Three to seven years of HR experience, depending on education level

Application fee: $50, included in exam fees

Exam fee: $300-$475, depending on SHRM membership and registration date

The SHRM Senior Certified Professional requires several years of leadership experience in HR. Candidates with a master's degree, for example, must still hold three years of HR experience to qualify. The certification tests candidates on their strategic and management competencies through a four-hour exam. 

Associate Professional in Human Resources

The starter cert

HR professionals who hold this cert: 0.7%

Offered by: HRCI

Eligibility requirements: None

Application fee: $100

Exam fee: $300

An entry-level certification requiring no work experience, the Associate Professional in Human Resources (aPHR) tests candidates with a knowledge-based exam. 

The 100-question test covers HR operations, employee relations, and recruitment. After earning the aPRH credential, professionals can pursue higher-level certifications.

Global Professional in Human Resources

Go global

HR professionals who hold this cert: 0.3%

Offered by: HRCI

Eligibility requirements: Two to four years of HR experience, depending on degree level

Application fee: $100

Exam fee: $495

The Global Professional in Human Resources credential showcases experience in international human resources. Candidates design HR policies for multinational organizations and promote global growth through human resources management. 

The certification exam covers strategic global human resources, global talent management, and global mobility.

Certified Compensation Professional

Payroll pros

HR professionals who hold this cert: 0.2%

Offered by: WorldatWork

Eligibility requirements: None

Application fee: None

Exam fee: $500 per exam

The Certified Compensation Professional credential requires passing scores on 10 exams. Candidates can sign up for HR certification courses, including two-day HR certification online courses. Alternatively, candidates can self-study. Certified professionals must complete 12 recertification credits every three years. 

Which HR certification pays most?

According to PayScale research, every HR certification except the entry-level aPHR credential caused a boost in pay. In 2018, professionals with an HR certification earned 32% more than those without a certification.

For many professionals, certification also increases their chance of a promotion. 

Advice from a certified HR professional

Jamie McCormick is an HR professional with over 13 years of experience across multiple industries. She holds both SPHR and SHRM-CP certifications. 

As director of HR at Betterworks, she is responsible for the global employee lifecycle. 

In addition to her human resources experience, Jamie holds a master's degree in international studies from the University of San Francisco and a bachelor's degree in international relations from San Francisco State University. She also serves as a mentor to USF and San Jose State University students seeking to pursue careers in the HR field.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

ZDNet: What were the greatest takeaways from your HR certifications that helped you to be successful in your career? 

Jamie McCormick: Both my certifications provide exposure to HR functions that are outside of my day-to-day work. They also afford me a strong generalist foundation that will help me continue to grow in the next steps of my career.

The recertification component helps me prioritize staying up to date with HR trends in an ever-changing industry. 

ZDNet: How did you make the most of your HR program so that it prepared you for post-grad jobs? 

JM: Like most HR professionals, I didn't attend university for human resources. As a result, most of my learning has been developed through hands-on experience. Having a certification and taking recertification courses helps me stay up to date on best practices and solidifies my expertise.

Common questions about HR certifications

What are the main HR certifications?

The most common HR certifications include the Professional in Human Resources, SPHR, SHRM-CP and SHRM Senior Certified Professional Credentials. 

Which is better, PHR or SHRM? 

PHR and SHRM credentials help professionals demonstrate their skills and increase their earning potential. Both are popular. The best certification depends on the professional and their career goals. 

Can you get an HR certification without a degree?

Yes. Many HR certifications do not require a degree. While most certifications set minimum eligibility requirements, candidates can meet these requirements with a mix of education and experience.

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