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The New SHRM Competency Guidelines

For many years the gold standard for HR certification in the USA, endorsed and supported by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), was provided by the knowledge focused HR Certification Institute that awarded the Professional HR (PHR) and Senior Professional HR (SPHR) designations.

 All that changed when in May 2014 SHRM announced a new competency based certification process that they would administer as an alternative to the HRCI certification, with two new certification designations: the SHRM certified professional (SHRM-CP) and the SHRM senior certified professional (SHRM-SCP).

 Henry G. Jackson, SHRM president and CEO at the time said: “We view SHRM certification as the next evolution of certification for HR professionals. Certification started out as testing for knowledge. Now it’s evolving to how to demonstrate competency.”

Many expressed surprised at the way things were handled. At the very least, it has been awkward and created confusion among HR Professionals as HRCI seeks to maintain, and SHRM now seeks to grow, its certification numbers! Exactly how this tension will play out, remains to be seen.

What is interesting, is that the new SHRM competency guidelines are very explicit about how HR professionals manage conflict as part of their relationship management obligations and in particular state that senior HR professionals should be able “to mediate difficult employee relations situations as a neutral.”

However, when I talk to HR professionals, most are not fully convinced that mediation is a required HR skill.  For the most part they think that mediators are like attorneys and that mediation is a formal legal process. In addition, they express concern about their ability to remain neutral.

Mediation is a conciliatory process that is premised on an acceptable third party not making a decision on behalf of those in dispute. Rather, they support the conflicted participants to find their own way. Here’s how I define mediation:

Mediation is a conciliatory process in which an acceptable third party intervenes in the conflict or disputes of partici­pants, in our case, employees, with the goal of supporting them to reach agreement.

A myriad of benefits flow from adopting a mediating approach including the obvious stronger buy in, more creative solutions, emotional closure and a positive impact on the bottom line.

More informally, what this means, is that when you sit down with two employees to facilitate a conversation and help them to work something out without telling them what to do, you are effectively mediating. HR professionals, not just employee relations specialists, do this all the time!

What matters most is whether you are acceptable to the employees who are in conflict. Which means they are willing to give you a chance to be their conflict resolution guide. Even when mediation is mandated, if you as the mediator are not accepted, there is not much that you can do.

And if you are deemed acceptable, you do your best not to take sides. You are neutral, impartial, balanced and equally there for all.

If our definition of mediation was premised on attaining pure neutrality, we’d never get to mediate. Which is why I prefer to say that mediators need to be acceptable and strive to be neutral.

Whether or not you are taking sides is for the participants to determine.  What we do know is that HR professionals do mediate conversations between conflicted employees all the time, whatever they may call it.

Maybe it in the striving to be neutral, rather than the attaining, that allows the mediator to be effective. And this, I believe, is well within the grasp of most HR professionals. Especially when all you want is for two employees to get along and do their job!

That said, it is not just senior HR professionals that according to SHRM, need to be neutral. Early level HR professionals are expected to develop a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR representative.”

And mid-level professionals are expected to “develop a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR professional serving employees and the organization.”

Clearly SHRM thinks it’s possible for HR professionals to be neutral mediators of internal workplace conflicts.

But what about the HRCI, and what is the full extent of the SHRM relationship management competency obligations?


20% of the questions for the Professional in HR (PHR) and 14% for the Senior Professional in HR (SPHR) certification tests are devoted to employee and labor relations. Employee and labor relations is considered an important part of any HR professional’s responsibilities and is described as follows:

“Developing, implementing/administering and evaluating the workplace in order to maintain relationships and working conditions that balance employer/employee needs and rights in support of the organization’s goals and objectives.”

When we drill down to see what functional responsibilities and knowledge HRCI requires, we find many references to the word investigate, and significantly the word mediation is mentioned only once:

“Investigate and resolve employee complaints filed with federal agencies involving employment practices or working conditions, utilizing professional resources as necessary (for example: legal counsel, mediation/arbitration specialists and investigators.”

Clearly the HRCI certifications do not place much emphasis on mediation, other than as a process with external professionals in the context of cases filed with federal agencies.

Their general tool of choice is the investigation. This inevitably leads to a focus on rights more than needs, and not the emotional underpinnings of the conflict.

In addition there is a provision stating that HR professionals should have, “Techniques and tools for facilitating positive employee relations (for example: employee surveys, dispute/conflict resolution, labor/management cooperative strategies)”

Still no mention of mediation as an HR skill, but HR professionals are expected to be able to support positive employee relations through facilitation.  Mediation is of course a form of facilitation. We facilitate conversations and allow them to reach their agreements.

Given that HRCI has been the gold standard for so long it’s no wonder that not much emphasis has been placed on mediation here in the USA.

However, a case can be made to say that HRCI expect HR Professionals to have conflict resolution capacity and to be able to facilitate as well.


But what about the new SHRM competency guidelines. What exactly do they say about mediation and conflict resolution more broadly?

The SHRM competency model identifies nine competencies that define what it means to be a successful HR professional. Relationship management is one of them.

Relationship management is defined as “the ability to manage interactions to provide service and to support the organization.” Here is more of what they mean by relationship management:

To manage interactions while providing supportive service, “HR professionals shouldmaintain productive interpersonal relationships and demonstrate aptitude to help others to do the same.”

They note that “healthy interpersonal relationships among employees at an organization contribute positively to employee and organizational success.”

This is the graphic SHRM provided to summarize the focus areas of the four different levels of HR. It’s like the bird’s eye view of the relationship management competency.

When we take a closer look at what is expected competency wise for each of the levels we see a focus on relationship management, conflict resolution and the skill of mediation.

What is apparent, is that the focus of the skill set has shifted dramatically from what the HRCI certification entailed. The emphasis is on conflict management in the broadest sense and embodies many best practices from that field.

In addition, HR professionals are expected to be developing their conflict management competencies at all levels and that by the time you get to a mid-level, are expected to be able to mediate.

Most HR professionals have heard about mediation, but not all are confident in their ability to mediate successfully.

What is apparent is that to comply with the SHRM competency standards HR professionals need to be conflict resolution competent. They need to be able to handle their own conflict challenges well, and help out others with their conflicts. In a nutshell they need to be conflict competent mediators.

What is fascinating, is that SHRM, accurately in my view, identified what it is that HR professionals (and other leaders for that matter) do a lot of the time in the management of employees: mediate.

However, for the most part, they don’t know that they are already mediating. Certainly they are mediating informally more often than they realize.

This is encouraging as with a little training and guidance HR professionals make great mediators.

In conclusion, my answer is yes! HR professionals should continue to mediate workplace conflicts and disputes as confirmed in part by the HRCI and in full by SHRM.

And while concerns about neutrality are well founded, there is still a way to use the mindset and process of the mediator with diplomacy.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this question…


SHRM Relationship Management Competency

Key attributes that focus on conflict management:

 Early level expectations focus on:

  • Listening without immediately providing the solution,
  • Making referrals of difficult situations to their manager,
  • Preventing transactional conflicts and when that is not possible facilitating their resolution,
  • Providing information about conflict resolution options, and
  • Developing a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR representative.

 Mid-level expectations focus on:

  • Recognizing potential employee relations issues in a proactive manner and resolving the issue,
  • Mediating difficult interactions, and escalating problems when warranted,
  • Developing a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR professional serving employees and the organization,
  • Fostering a positive team environment among staff, and
  • Facilitating conflict resolution meetings.

 Senior level expectations focus on:

  • Mediating difficult employee relations as a neutral party,
  • Developing policies and practices for resolving conflicts,
  • Resolving escalated conflicts among stakeholders,
  • Managing challenging issues in union and non-union environments,
  • Negotiating with internal and external stakeholders,
  • Building consensus and settling disputes internal to HR on policy and practice decisions, and
  • Facilitating difficult interactions among organizational stakeholders to achieve optimal outcomes.

 Executive level expectations focus on:

  • Creating conflict resolution strategies and processes throughout the organization,
  • Negotiating with internal and external stakeholders to advance the interests of the organization,
  • Fostering a culture that supports intra-organizational relationships throughout organization,
  • Proactively developing relationships with peers, clients, suppliers, board members, and senior leaders.

John Ford

 John Ford is the author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy. He mediates; trains; and consults to organizations that have accepted the inevitability of conflict and are seeking to approach it with greater clarity and confidence. He was the managing editor of from 2000… MORE >

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