National Public Radio is an unusual workplace, and it presents some unusual human resources challenges. Jeff Perkins, the chief people officer for the organization, recalled ruefully meeting Mara Liasson, one its biggest-name talents, on election night in 2010.

“And she says: ‘Who are you?’” Perkins recounted on Monday during a session at the Society for Human Resources Management’s annual conference in Chicago. “Now here it is November, and I’ve been in the position since June – and she thinks [my predecessor] is still on the job. That’s a problem.” The political correspondent had been so busy doing her job across the country, she hadn’t met her new director of HR.

Perkins asked the room stuffed with scores of HR professionals how many of them had voluntary turnover rates at or under 3%. Very few hands went up.

“When you only turn over 3%, it’s harder to find ways to get people new roles, give new assignments [and] offer new career opportunities, and we were struggling with that,” Perkins said.

A number of positions did open up, however, with what Perkins called The Great Unpleasantness – NPR’s firing of commentator Juan Williams over controversial remarks he made on Fox News about flying on planes next to Muslims and, soon thereafter, the leaking of a recording showing Ronald Schiller, senior vice president for fundraising, making disparaging comments about conservatives and the tea party. Those events, Perkins said, “opened up some positions at the top of the shop,” and he and his team decided to increase HR’s profile at NPR.

“We decided we needed to reposition and restructure HR. We decided we had to align our practices with corporate goals, and we had to institute cultural change,” Perkins said. “We got [more] involved in the hirings … and we completely revamped employee recognition programs.”

Perkins says he took HR at NPR to a far more prominent and decision-making position, and that HR professionals always need to leverage such opportunities. Recently, for example, the organization moved into a new facility. Perkins used the move to incorporate new health and wellness initiatives, including everything from healthier vending machines and a full-service onsite health clinic to an expanded and improved gym. And when the new exercise center was too small for all the stationary bikes they wanted to offer, they moved the extra ones up to – you guessed it – the HR department. Figure out ways to make changes into opportunities, Perkins said.

“If you take one thing away,” he said, it’s that “HR must lead the way.”

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