Karen Niparko began her career as an HR practitioner at the age of seventeen, when she took up a clerical job at the agricultural equipment manufacturer Massey Ferguson, in Detroit. In the four decades since, she has climbed the ranks through a number of different industries and companies to arrive at her current opportunity: chief human resources officer for the City and County of Denver.
The diversity of her experience in industries as varied as manufacturing, financial services, technology, and broadcast, among others, and businesses from two hundred to thirty-two thousand employees has provided her with a wide-ranging perspective. “After several years of human resource experience, you’ve pretty much lived through it all,” she says.
Her latest position pushes her to rely on these years of experience to oversee more than fourteen thousand diverse municipal employees for the Mile High City, spread across thirty-five different government agencies and elected-official organizations. Her work and that of her team members ensures the city has the best talent to meet the needs of a growing economy and build a sustainable city. Denver enjoys a reputation for innovation, diversity, performance excellence, progressive hiring, and positive employee work experiences.
Niparko’s career has been one of continual learning, with each position strengthening her human resources leadership and expertise. She gained a strong foundation of HR experience in her ten years with Massey Ferguson. “I worked for good leaders in challenging business environments and was privileged to have a very encouraging mentor who remains a close friend today,” she says.
In her time there, she participated in negotiations with the United Auto Workers union, supported high business growth followed by the unfortunate downturn in the automotive industry. Throughout her career, she has transformed HR organizations, held business-line leadership positions, led strategic growth, downsizings, mergers, and acquisitions, and more. “It was the experience early on in my career that helped shape my business philosophies and approach to human resources,” she says. “I knew HR was the career that I wanted to pursue.”
While Massey Ferguson helped her get her feet wet, it was her time at StorageTek (now owned by Sun Microsystems) that allowed her to take her experience to the next level. As a chief administrative officer working with an employee base of eight thousand employees, Niparko had the chance to solve more complex, global issues and challenges in the technology sector, during the height of the high-tech bubble. “I was able to work more globally and more strategically during a highly competitive business period,” she says.
That job armed her for the complex scale of government work and helped her see how to strategically introduce private-sector innovations and practices to the government sector. “I have continued to learn something new from every position and every environment,” Niparko says. “Each challenge is more complex, providing the opportunity to innovatively solve new business problems successfully.” From her various roles, she has also cultivated a philosophy focused on her obligation to make a meaningful difference for her organization and in the professional lives and development of the talent her organization brings aboard.
Her latest work, managing HR for a public entity, has presented her with new challenges. The number of stakeholders is exponentially higher, for one: “It’s the most complex organizational structure that I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve worked for several major multinational companies,” she says. And, instead of crafting a strategy with one CEO, Niparko now works with at least forty-five different agency heads—in addition to elected officials, all CEOs in their own right. And, she must address the expectations of the public itself. “We’re here to serve the people of Denver, and that commitment comes with a great deal of responsibility and high expectations,” she says.
One particular ongoing area of focus for Niparko and her team is preparing for the workforce of the future and improving the candidate and employee experience. “Our goal,” Niparko says, “is to create the best positive experience for candidates who will become our employees. We hope these new team members will feel they’re joining a positive, productive environment where their individual career goals can be met. If their hiring process is smooth, customized, quick, and respectful, it prepares our managers to orient and develop their new team members successfully.”
Building a positive, productive environment for employees has included providing best-in-class health benefits. “Karen’s wealth of experience and knowledge in the area of human resources has allowed for dynamic coordination with UnitedHealthcare and the introduction of highly innovative and well-integrated programs to benefit the health and wellness of employees of the City and County of Denver,” says Jennifer Behm, key accounts vice president for UnitedHealth Group. “It’s a true honor and privilege to work with someone with Karen’s caliber of skill and commitment to excellence.”
Candidate employees’ experience starts with the City of Denver’s creative branding, website, outreach, and strong social media presence, which is more modern, hands-on, personal, and communicative. Additionally, the department has launched a user-friendly applicant-tracking system, bolstered its social media outreach, and established a strong branding message for recruitment: “Be a Part of the City That You Love.”
“[The City of Denver is] the most complex organizational structure that I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve worked for several major multinational companies.”
Because the City of Denver receives more than 145,000 applications per year and only places 4,000 or so, it’s doubly important to attract the best talent in a strong economy. “Denver is a competitive job market, with so many choices for job seekers,” Niparko says. “If prospective employees have a good feeling about our culture, our people, and their career opportunities, we hope they will want to work for our city—and share Denver’s story with their colleagues, friends, and families. They have the most sincere voice to tell our story.”
To better handle such a large employee base with so many moving parts, Niparko has also been implementing a leading-edge human resources information system. In January 2017, Denver launched the Workday enterprise resource planning system, facilitating a stronger applicant tracking system and employee database, better performance management, and increased resources for on-demand learning. “The implementation of Workday has made an enormous difference for us,” Niparko says, adding that it automates tedious manual and paper processes so that HR professionals can invest more time strategically consulting with leadership and employees.
Niparko speaks at various conferences, webcasts, and industry group meetings on topics ranging from preparing for the future of work to marketing and branding, innovation, and HRIS systems implementations. She has mentored MBA students and judged MBA case competitions. Recently, Denver’s HR organization received the Excellence in HR award from industry group IPMA-HR.
Most recently, Niparko had the opportunity to learn and share Denver’s leading practices with government officials abroad. Through an organization called the American Council of Young Political Leaders, Niparko hosted a Philippine young professional for two months, sharing Denver’s leading practices and inviting her to shadow Niparko and her team. In exchange, Niparko visited Manila and Cebu cities in the Philippines, meeting with government officials and HR leaders to discuss Denver’s programs, challenges, and innovations.
Given her decades of experience, Niparko’s leadership for the City and County of Denver seems like the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of accumulated HR wisdom and innovation. “HR has an opportunity—no, an obligation—to make a difference for the business every day, in every decision we make,” she says.
By leading Denver’s HR transformation, building the best employee experience, and attracting top talent, Niparko doing just that.