HR Leads Business

Jul 7, 2016 | Barry Lawrence, HRCI Staff Writer

Accreditation in Certification Matters

Unsure about the difference between certification and accreditation? You’re not alone. Yet for practitioners seeking a bona fide human resource management credential that’s respected and valued by the HR profession, as well as the organizations that employ them, it’s important to understand the difference between these two terms.

The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. This has created misunderstanding in multiple fields and industries, not just HR. So, to help you invest time and effort wisely along your career journey, here’s a look at what other professions say about certification and the importance of accreditation.

Getting the Right Test Results

In the laboratory setting, the National Voluntary Laboratory Association (NVLAP) says:

  • Certification is used for verifying that personnel have adequate credentials to practice certain disciplines.
  • Accreditation is used to verify that laboratories have an appropriate quality management system and can properly perform certain test methods and calibration parameters according to their scopes of accreditation.

The two terms create “tremendous confusion in the marketplace,” posts John W. Locke, former president of the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation and manager of NVLAP, in Quality Digest magazine. “This seems strange, considering that professed quality practitioners (people who should understand the pitfalls of ambiguous definitions) use these [two] words constantly.”

Laboratory accreditation, similar to the accredited measurement of competency for a profession, ensures that test reports (or skills and knowledge) are acceptable and comparable everywhere in the world. In the laboratory setting, this enables labs to compare test data with other accredited labs and helps labs reduce delays and costs. For professions, including HR, accreditation allows businesses to assess and compare credentials with confidence.

Fuzzy Words with Real Meaning

Hospital professionals are also baffled by the terms. The Joint Commission, which ensures safety and quality in health care, devoted a whole white paper to the topic. Massage therapists also scratch their own heads over the two terms.

“The term certification is often used as a catch-all term for several different activities that apply to the credentialing of individuals and institutions,” notes the American Massage Therapy Association. “This fuzziness of definition has resulted in confusion when it comes to discussing credentials.”

What’s important to note is that accreditation and certification should be viewed in a hierarchy: Accreditation is for the bodies and organizations that perform certification. “Accreditation is the confirmation that a certification body is able to thoroughly assess clients against these requirements and issue certificates in an impartial manner,” posts Accreditation Services International (ASI), an assurance partner for leading sustainability standard systems and initiatives.

Avoiding Misinformation When Choosing Credentials

The higher education field, for most people, is where most students and their families confront the importance of accreditation. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) campaigns to inform prospective college students about the importance of exploring each institution’s accreditation standards. The CHEA website even alerts students and parents about “degree mills” and “accreditation mills” that are bogus.

“Accreditation is like a very hard test,” CHEA concludes. “It requires every part of a school or program to be examined and judged by experts. If the school or program passes the test, this means that it lives up to its promises to students. You can trust what the school or program tells you about its courses, its teachers, the services it provides and what you will need to pay (tuition and fees).”

This is also good advice for professionals to follow when seeking out certifications and training programs. Do your homework. Find out if the program is accredited or not. If not, think carefully about what that says about the organization and its credentials. Not all organizations are willing or able to subject their certification programs to the objective scrutiny of an accrediting body. This is unfortunate since accreditation is a great way to know if program is telling the truth about the value of its programs.