As the institution’s assistant vice president of compensation and benefits, Linda Nilsen knows Princeton University inside and out, from its people to its programs. She also knows what attracts new talent to the university—and how recent hires begin their own journey toward understanding campus culture.
“You go through a mission orientation when you join Princeton,” Nilsen explains. “People here are seeking more than just a job or benefits. People come here to be part of our culture and our mission. Every employee at the university has an impact on the student experience and the research happening here, no matter what their role is.”
Nilsen’s own role is to steer human resources (HR) initiatives that not only bring people to Princeton in the first place, but also keep them there by furnishing them with the individualized support they need to thrive. To that end, she makes a point of prioritizing employee health and wellness and fostering a collaborative culture across the university.
On a day-to-day basis, Nilsen toggles between responding to critical priorities and meeting with vendors or staff. “I do meet with my staff quite often as well as with organizational leadership to share or collect information,” she says. “I’m often attending and sharing information as a subject matter expert, since many other areas touch benefits and compensation in some way.” Because of the fluid nature of those meetings, she often needs to operate in the moment, adapting as new items come her way.
Nilsen’s flexibility in her role mirrors the flexibility of the benefits Princeton makes available to its employees. “We make quite an effort to ensure that our benefits have the necessary variety to meet everybody’s needs. Everyone has different needs, and you do your best to provide balanced options for all people at the university,” she explains.
Nilsen highlights the wide range of benefit options at Princeton as a key part of the university’s recruitment and retention efforts. Candidates learn about benefits during the recruitment process, and Nilsen has a tool under development to ensure those discussions are as catered as possible to the specific circumstances of each individual. Eventually, she plans to apply the tool to retention as well, so managers or HR generalists can help current employees better understand and optimize their benefits.
To set Princeton apart in the marketplace, Nilsen aims for the university’s benefits programs to be as unique as the needs of its employees. “We’re looking for distinct, differentiated programs that show who we are as an organization,” she confirms. “We care about each individual who works for us, and we want them to have the opportunity to be the best that they can be. If I do my job well, faculty and staff can focus on their contributions to the university without worrying about benefits.”
For example, Princeton’s Castlight and Picwell tools help employees choose the best programs for their needs while keeping costs under control. Employees also receive a monthly benefits newsletter outlining the ways Princeton benefits can help employees.
Jon Mahrt, chief operating officer at Optum Rx, a pharmacy care services company, works closely with Nilsen. “Linda’s dedication to developing programs that reflect a campus culture rooted in care is inspiring,” Mahrt says. “Prioritizing unique and flexible health and wellness benefits enables employees to focus on doing their best work.”
Likewise, Nilsen strives to makes it easier for employees to take care of themselves through her work on health and wellness, including the creation of a center consolidating all physical, mental, and financial health and wellness activities in one place.
“In terms of physical, mental, and financial wellness, we’ve taken the approach of providing education and resources. For instance, we provide on-site health coaching, and we give employees time off to see a health coach so that time is not an obstacle,” Nilsen says. In addition, she has made it possible for employees to obtain their annual physicals and to access mental health counselors on-site.
Based on how employees have embraced these resources, Nilsen believes they are much more likely to take advantage of programs that are offered at their workplace during regular working hours. She will therefore continue to focus on accessibility in future health and wellness initiatives.
On the education front, Nilsen has prepared further resources to help employees navigate the health care system, whether on campus or off it. From a company health advocate to a mobile application for finding and comparing doctors, the educational resources prepare Princeton workers to connect with the right providers at the right price. “We bring together all these great resources for a healthy life, and we talk with employees about them so they can take better care of themselves and their families,” Nilsen says. “We see it as just another extension of how Princeton cares for its employees and their health and well-being.”
The care that Nilsen talks about in relation to benefits and compensation gets at the heart of what Princeton represents as an institution. For Nilsen, the university is a place where people come together to solve problems and effect change. “Our culture is about helping each other to be successful and working toward the greater good,” she says. “Collaboration is an essential value in our culture; we value the diverse perspectives, knowledge, skills, and contributions of each colleague at the university.”
Nilsen’s colleagues outside the university have taken note of her efforts. “Linda’s dedication to help all faculty and staff live their best lives—physically, intellectually, financially, and emotionally—empowers each to fulfill the university’s motto, ‘Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity,” says Ted Borgstadt, CEO of the health behavior change coaching company TrestleTree.
Nilsen sees Princeton’s culture strongly reflected within her own team. “My team members are the most compassionate, caring, and thoughtful people that I know,” she says. “When they’re on the phone, they’re attentive and convey to employees that we understand their problem and we want to help them find a solution. And if we can’t find a solution through our normal course of work, we’ll go out of our way to do so.”
Nilsen reflects on her team with pride. “They’ve grown and developed their technical skills, their abilities, and their understanding of the market and of benefits,” she says. “They’ve really become strong professionals who provide advice at cross-functional committees and within HR as we design programs.”
As for her own achievements, Nilsen points to a healthcare strategy she implemented back in 2012 that is still going strong. “The strategy is based on providing education and resources to our faculty, our staff, and their families, so they can take the best care of themselves with regard to their physical, mental, and financial health. In so doing, we’ve been able to manage our costs without detracting from existing programs,” she says. “To develop that strategy, enact it, and see that it’s working for ten years now––that’s been huge for me.”
Nilsen will have no shortage of opportunities to develop similarly successful strategies in the future. “I intend to stay at Princeton for a long time,” she says. “I love where I work, I love the work I do, and I love the feeling of knowing that what I do matters.”