Choosing Between the PHR and SPHR: Which Exam Should I Take?

Professional HR certifications are impactful on an HR practitioner’s career. The Professional in Human Resources® (PHR®) and Senior Professional in Human Resources® (SPHR®) are some of the most widely held certifications among HR professionals in North America. 

Eligibility for the PHR and SPHR are both based on professional level and educational requirements.  In essence the PHR is operational and the SPHR is strategic. Each certification supports your career in a different — but equally vital — way.

Here’s how to determine which certification is right for you. 

Know Your Career Goals

Your specific interests and experiences in HR will help guide your decision between pursuing either the PHR or SPHR certification. The PHR provides support for HR professionals who directly manage employee and labor relations, business management and talent planning and acquisition, among other projects. The PHR is focused on operational aspects of human resources. You’re more engaged in the day-to-day aspects of HR. PHR typically embodies roles that involve management and HR specializations. 

The SPHR, on the other hand, is more strategic and organization-focused. In essence, you exhibit your leadership and strategy when maintaining employee engagement, expanding business relations and acquiring talent. It’s more about the bigger picture. SPHR supports overarching strategy positions, such as chief human resources officer or chief people officer.

Many HR professionals get both, starting with the PHR. Once you have a strong foundation built on your tactical and operational experiences, you can then build on that with the strategic value of the SPHR. 

Certification Eligibility

Your individual professional experience in HR will help you determine whether the PHR or the SPHR certification is a better fit. Our eligibility tool guides you through some basic questions regarding your areas of interest, level of experience and work location. 

When measuring your experience, it’s important to note that both the PHR and SPHR require professional-level experience. This refers to qualities such as your depth of work in the field (such as gathering, analyzing and interpreting data), your specialized knowledge and your authority for decision-making in your position. To qualify for the SPHR, for example, you would need to have spent meaningful time as an HR business partner.

The PHR candidate will be assessed more for their ability to implement and manage HR programs and activities, whereas the SPHR is more about the ability to develop and evaluate HR business strategies.

Define Your Career Experiences

A more comprehensive way to measure your professional level experience can be found in the individual exam content outlines. Both the PHR and the SPHR exam content outlines are divided into functional areas, which are then subdivided into specific responsibilities and knowledge. 

Look at the exam type you want to take, then review the exam content outline to see what it entails. Ask yourself if you have that responsibility and the knowledge that comes with it? This helps you determine which functional areas, responsibilities and knowledge are commensurate with your experiences as an HR practitioner. 

For example, employee and labor relations make up 39% of the PHR exam. Some of the responsibilities that fall under this category at the professional level include promoting organizational policies and procedures or implementing and supporting workplace programs. If these responsibilities match the bulk of your experiences, then the PHR is probably the better option for you.

For the SPHR, leadership and strategy accounts for 40% of the exam. These responsibilities focus on experiences such as aligning people strategies with overall organizational strategy and measuring their effectiveness in moving towards organizational goals. If you have significant experience as an HR business partner then the SPHR could be right for you.

You don’t have to settle for just one HRCI certification. You can start with the PHR to support short-term goals and add the SPHR as your career grows to meet your long-term goals.