Klamath Tribes Human Resources Department seeks to increase the workforce

Klamath Tribes’ Human Resources Director, Laurel Robinson, has worked in HR for the Klamath Tribes since 1996 at Tribal Health and Tribal Administration. She is confronted with issues plaguing any HR Department, from a diminished workforce to worker burnout and unnecessary hiring barriers. She sat down with the Klamath Tribes News to discuss some of these problems and her approach to improving the situation.

“We’re getting less and less applications,” said Robinson. “With a limited number of workers in the local area, we are struggling to fill positions.”

Robinson said a majority of the applicants are people already living in Chiloquin or Klamath Falls and surrounding areas. However, a lack of housing is a huge barrier to recruiting people from outside of the area. “As the workforce diminishes, there are only so many people in Klamath County,” she said. “We’re basically taking workers from other organizations in the area. We have to be competitive with benefits and salaries to attract workers to make the move.”

Sometimes, she explained, people who were working at Tribal Health and Family Services will transfer to Tribal Administration and vice versa or workers will transfer within the organization, which still leaves an open position to fill. Setting like-pay scales, where the pay is comparable for similar jobs throughout various departments, is high on Robinson’s agenda. She said some departments have more money to spend and, therefore, can spend more on hiring. Like-pay scales, in theory, would discourage people from lateral moves, doing the same job for a different department. “I set standard pay ranges for like positions so we could reduce the lateral movement,” she said. “But I’m still finding a lot of internal movement.” She added that she prefers individuals not to stay in positions they are discontent with.

Robinson said it is ideal that workers are interested in what they are doing, as this helps bolster retention rates for any given department. “Sometimes the individual will transfer because they prefer a different type of work, or they prefer the supervisor in another department, or they’re avoiding burnout,” she said. “Maybe you’ve done something for a while and want to try something different. Or maybe the pay is better.”

The Klamath Tribes face the challenge of internal movement as current employees change positions and departments, while other challenges have been recruiting individuals who have criminal backgrounds, whether misdemeanors or felonies. Many assume that they won’t be hired because of their past. Or non-tribal individuals who assume the Tribes only hire tribal members and thus don’t apply for open positions.

There are also cases where some individuals might have been addicted to hard drugs or have a criminal record from decades ago. Robinson disagrees with the notion that a former convicted felon should be perpetually punished. “You paid your debt to society. We don’t need to keep punishing you,” she said. “How can you rebuild your life if you can’t get a job?”

She said one individual’s background check is not going to matter unless the crime is recent or they apply for a position that requires clearing a specific background requirement.

As for hiring non-tribal members who have not worked for a tribe, Robinson noted the unique challenges these individuals might initially face. Learning the tribal side of things is critical because the tribe has its own government and is a government within a government where tribal laws and specific Federal rules apply. State employment laws do not apply to Tribes who are sovereign nations. Tribes have a lot of rules to follow that are not required of private industry. This makes the learning curve more challenging for people who have not had the experience of working for a tribe.

With the legalization of marijuana use, pre-employment drug testing played a large role in discouraging potential hires from applying. Marijuana use, being detectable in the human body for up to a month for occasional use, impeded the application process for employers and employees. When positions have a short open recruitment period, there is no possibility to clear the system for drug testing. “We were missing a lot of opportunities for hiring,” said Robinson. “Since the goal of drug testing is to ensure we have a drug free workplace, we have stopped pre-employment testing and use suspect testing, unless the position requires extra caution such as bus drivers, for example.”

Around 80 percent of the current Klamath Tribes workers are enrolled members of a tribe. However, the goal is to increase that percentage and train more tribal members to join the workforce and fill positions. Robinson also stressed the need for more on-the-job training, coaching, and increased work competency training for advancement opportunities in order to garner interest in working for the tribe as well as for retaining current employees. 

“Director-level positions are harder to fill,” said Robinson. “One part of my strategic plan is to have the departments implement succession planning so we’re hiring from the bottom up, not the top down. That way, knowledge doesn’t walk out the door when somebody leaves. You train up so that there’s always somebody ready to step up as opposed to now they’re gone, and we have to try and figure out what processes they knew and didn’t teach others to do.”

Robinson acknowledges that some employees, regardless of the organization for which they work, can be territorial in wanting to keep the knowledge to themselves, which can hinder succession planning.

Robinson has adjusted pre-requisites and salaries for a variety of jobs in an effort to fill positions in a location with a limited workforce. She encourages job prospectors to view the job listings posted on the Klamath Tribes website, which change often as positions become available. Lucrative jobs are being offered by the Tribes, she said, with many more opportunities to come as the Tribes’ workforce needs are quickly expanding.