Industry Updates

Key Takeaways from the 14th Annual Native American Human Resources Conference

February 19, 2024

Delegates gathered from far and wide at the Pechanga Resort Casino in late January for the 14th Annual Native American Human Resources Conference. Over 200 representatives from tribal enterprises and over 100 industry partners participated in two days of sessions, networking, and fun. This year, attendees received 11 HRCI credit hours towards  aPHR™, aPHRi™, PHR®, PHRca®, SPHR®, GPHR®, PHRi™ and SPHRi™ designations.

Jerrod Murr of Paradigm Shift Leadership kicked off the conference with his inspiring keynote address, Human Resources: The Strategic Business Partner. And you guessed it, he discussed why HR leaders need to get themselves a seat at the table with the rest of the C-suite when it’s time for strategic business decisions to be made. Jerrod’s session brought the energy and set the tone for the exciting discoveries and conversations that were about to unfold over the next two days.

Next, the conference moved into the highly-anticipated session that discussed strategies for rebuilding and recruiting your workforce. Ruth Zaldivar, Human Resources Director from Muscogee Nation Gaming Enterprises, proudly discussed her team’s efforts to create more awareness about current job openings outside of typical platforms. She said they hired a social media manager to create videos about current job openings and event showcase content about seasonal activities. Before this newly-created position, there were no employment-specific social sites for the Muscogee Nation, and now they have a tremendous online presence with a pipeline full of candidates.

Before attendees broke for lunch, “Success Stories Behind Employee Longevity” delivered answers to some hard-hitting questions. Crystal Hill, National Director of Tribal Services of USI Consulting, Inc., remarked that specifically in tribal businesses, community recognition means the most and is the biggest factor in employee retention. Whether that’s a ceremony in front of other employees/tribal members or a callout in a tribal publication, it helps boost morale, and the employee feels like they are recognized beyond the workplace.

After lunch, attendees broke into sessions for more focused learning, choosing their own adventures. Preparing the Future of Your Organization’s session on succession planning to ensure a forward-thinking, structured process is in place to develop individuals within the organization who are driven to succeed in key leadership roles. Cynthia Jaramillo, Senior Human Resources Manager from Isleta Resort and Casino, remarked that it’s important to:

  • Identify competencies for key positions.
  • Develop a training program with mentors who provide hands-on job shadowing
  • When interviewing interested employees, address career plans and how your organization can support them
  • Consistently evaluate your program effectiveness

Day one ended with a can’t-miss roundtable on generational differences led by HR executives. Panelists shared humorous yet heartfelt anecdotes about their organizations and how their diverse workforces are learning to work together through all of their differences. An Tran, Vice President of Human Resources of the San Manual Band of Mission Indians, recommended to “[not] ignore commonalities between generations. There’s a tendency to have stereotypes and preconceived notions of individuals, which can negatively affect your organization.”

We kicked off Day Two refreshed and ready to learn all about AI! Julio Nunez, Human Resources Director from the Osage Nation, shared some very candid sentiments that left the crowd wanting more. He opened by defining AI: “Narrow AI and Strong AI. Narrow AI is what we’re mostly using right now, with Alexa and our iPhones. Strong AI is what Hollywood makes movies about AI becoming sentient. We are not quite there yet.” He then stated that AI can assist in personalized employee training once teams submit the correct prompts. Communication styles, personality tests, general likes, and dislikes can be input, and then custom training can be curated for a new hire. AI can enhance decision-making and HR policies by making data-driven decisions, predictive analytics for turnover, customized learning and development, and strategic workforce planning, but AI can never replace the human element of HR.

The tough topics didn’t stop there; next, we discussed the pros and cons of remote, hybrid, and in-person work and how enterprises can make it work for all employees. For this group, it’s a tricky subject as some parts of the team can work remotely while others must be in person or are customer-facing, and it can create a rift amongst smaller teams. Lynn Faraca-Bond, Senior Vice President of Human Resources from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, believes that if you manage a team that works in person, then you, as the leader, need to be in-person, too. Patrick Higgins, Senior Director of Human Resources for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, had an interesting viewpoint, stating that they prioritize hiring tribal citizens and that regardless of timezone, all personnel must work on Alaskan time. He stated that they will continue to hire a remote workforce to support their notion of prioritizing the hiring of tribal members. 

After lunch, attendees went deep into discussion on the crowd-favorite topic, Employment Law Updates. Kehl Van Winkle from MCTLAW shared an in-house perspective, stating that he tries to approach things from a policy-first perspective. He shared with the audience that if you know the source of the laws that apply, you will have a healthier HR department and need legal departments less.

After this we moved into our discussion on Mental Health in the workplace and HR teams’ role in helping employees. This discussion was lively and extremely heartfelt, with panelists sharing stories of how progressive policies positively impacted their employees. Teresita Cowan, Benefits Manager from Muscogee Nation Gaming Enterprises, shared how HR professionals have a vital role to play in promoting mental health wellness at organizational and individual levels and that individual performance really impacts the organization. As HR leaders, we want to make sure we create an environment where someone struggling with mental health can come to HR and get the resources they need.

We wrapped up the 14th Annual Native American Human Resources Conference with the can’t-miss roundtable of HR Executives – Leading Through Challenging Times. Gary Burrs, Executive Officer of Human Resources from Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, shared, “Human capital is the one thing organizations can do to be different from each other. It is important to understand that casinos sell the exact same product, and the human interaction is different.” A powerful thought to close out the conference. Many attendees came from a gaming-based business, asking the question of how they can make their team stand out. The answer was easy: it’s the people. They drive your success, build your culture, and are your greatest asset.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we announce the dates and location for the 15th Annual Native American Human Resources Conference. If you miss joining us this year, we sincerely hope you join us next year!