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North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Jay Schuler speaks during the fifth annual North Dakota Governor’s Workforce & Human Resources Conference at the Fargo Holiday Inn on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. David Samson / Forum News Service

Building up ND's workforce: Annual conference educates HR workers, recruiters on today's big workplace issues

FARGO — Human resources staff don't usually get the spotlight at work, but speakers at an annual conference here said these employees play a vital role in promoting a strong workforce and innovation that could make their businesses shine.

North Dakota Commerce Commission Jay Schuler said the state is dealing with a big "challenge" right now: It had the nation's lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 2.3 percent in August, but it lacks enough workers to fill open jobs.

That's why he said it's more important than ever for companies to focus on attracting and retaining quality employees and building up what they already have, a main goal of the fifth annual Governor's Workforce & Human Resources Conference that kicked off Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Fargo's Holiday Inn.

"I can just tell you from being a businessman all my life, business is absolutely nothing without quality employees," he said. "It's employees that make it all happen, and what you folks do is fantastic."

The conference, which continues through Friday, Sept. 22, features keynote speakers and breakout sessions focusing on hot-button issues in HR and workforce, including building company culture and keeping up with legal challenges and risks.

Joe Gerstandt, one half of keynote speaking duo Talent Anarchy, told attendees about a 3M employee tasked with developing a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry who accidentally created a weak adhesive.

After that mistake in 1968, he said, the employee kept looking for uses for the product rather than giving up. Inspiration struck years later when a 3M colleague suggested using it to hold a bookmark in his hymn book, and the popular Post-it note was born after a couple of marketing tests and a rebranded product name.

While every organization would love a success story like that, Gerstandt asked the crowd how many would actually "tolerate" the behaviors and long development that led to the Post-it.

"We can't just try to put smart people in rooms with whiteboards and think that they they will innovate," he said. "We've got to identify the behaviors and the practices behind it."

Earlier in the day, Jessica Roe with Minneapolis-based Roe Law Group discussed the top 10 reasons employees sue their employers during a breakout session meant for HR workers.

The labor and employment law specialist's first advice was to properly train managers and supervisors so they know relevant laws, their own company's policies, proper documentation techniques and other vital parts of doing their jobs.

"They are literally the first person deposed," she said.

Roe said organizations tend to run into lawsuits like this because of retaliation claims, unclear communication with workers and mistakes in hiring, terminating or reviewing the performance of employees. It's worth thinking about, she said, because 98 percent of cases like this settle, costing employers money and time.

But a lot of it can be avoided with simple steps, she said. Roe advised attendees to make sure their handbooks are updated, document all meetings or communication with employees about performance issues and develop a hiring process that can screen out applicants with obvious red flags.

She also encouraged people to drop the Minnesota or North Dakota Nice act — at least when it comes to reviews — because plaintiff's lawyers "love" when a terminated employee has nothing but big raises and positive evaluations in their personnel file.

"Please be honest," she said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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