“The people.” That’s all Michelle Whiteley could say when asked what has kept her in benefits for the last twenty years. She began her career in the “people department” at Southwest Airlines; today, she’s the director of benefits at Texas Christian University.
“It’s all about the people and wanting to do something that is making a difference. Working in benefits has a lot of challenging aspects, but when you put all of the pieces together, what we’re doing is impacting people in a way that improves their lives,” Whiteley says.
When Whiteley made her way from Austin, Texas, to Tarleton State University in Stephenville, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study—or do, for that matter. “I wanted to be a vet, and then I realized how much science was involved with that, and I had to change,” she says. In the end, her dad advised her to get her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“It’s not like going and getting a general business degree can give you an exact replication of what it’s like working in an HR department, but it was the only path I knew to go down,” Whitely explains. After graduating, her first job was at Southwest Airlines in their HR department or, as they called it, the “people department.”
“It was about as entry-level as you can get—all I did was take fingerprints of incoming employees and take their pictures for their IDs. From there, I started building with every job I took,” she says. Six months later, Whiteley was offered a job in the retirement department.
“I oversaw 401(k) emergency withdrawals: [individuals withdrawing from their accounts] might be facing a foreclosure on their home, or they had huge medical bills due to something going on with their health, or they were paying their college loans. I found out you can help people that are in tough situations,” she explains.
As Whiteley’s career grew, it took her to many public sector institutions, including school districts and city-, state-, and county-level organizations. “A piece of advice my dad always gave me was not to be mesmerized by the shiny start-up companies, to go with the tried and true,” she says. Once again, Dad’s advice paid off.
Whiteley’s experience eventually led her to higher education, and in 2015, she began her current role as the director of benefits at Texas Christian University (TCU), a private university in Fort Worth, Texas. Like many institutions, TCU was forced to make tough budgetary decisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This brought unique challenges to the HR department, which had to comply with mandates from the board to cut certain benefits.
“Not only do I get to make decisions that benefit our employees but along with that, I have a fiscal responsibility to my employer. It’s a real balance between providing the best benefits I can for our employees while also staying on budget and finding new and innovative ways to offer benefits,” Whiteley says.
One particularly successful project in providing benefits while also driving cost-savings was the Voluntary Incentivize Retirement Program, which allowed eligible employees to retire early in exchange for a lump-sum benefit. “We had a lot of employees who took advantage of it. It’s always nice to wrap up a big project like that, look back, and be able to say it worked,” she says.
As employees struggled to shift their daily routines to work from home, it became increasingly important that HR offered benefits in a way that was accessible virtually. In addition to providing online dental, medical, and mental healthcare, Whiteley and her team decided to change their Employee Assistance Program provider at the beginning of 2022, based on feedback they received from employees during that time.
The past year has also shown a shift in the demographic within higher education. “We’ve started to see the demographics change throughout the pandemic, and [that’s] continuing now,” Whiteley says. “So, a benefit that we introduced was paid parental leave to help those employees having or adopting children.”
Whiteley is constantly looking for ways to offer benefits that support specific groups and are helpful for everyone. For example, last year, her team introduced paid short-term disability insurance, which covers a portion of an employee’s salary if they cannot work due to a non-job-related injury or illness.
Today, Whiteley’s goal is to develop a wellness program that can benefit employees across the board. “It’s difficult because wellness is a moving target; what works today may or may not work tomorrow,” she says. “There are also many different aspects to wellness: it’s not just physical. I want to pursue initiatives that will push employees toward wellness in all areas of their lives, including mental health and financial wellness.”
Despite the challenges and changes over the last couple of years, Whiteley says that the business of providing benefits hasn’t changed. “We’ve had to make some adjustments, and we’ve made some changes, but the bottom line is we’re still here to provide benefits to the employees and to support them.”
At TCU, Whiteley’s support of the employees fosters their service to the students. “The students are the end goal; that’s what you’re there for. I came to higher education knowing that what I’m doing affects the employees’ ability to go out into the world, whether at work or home with their families. We do a lot to support that,” she says, “from wellness to mental health to finance down to the day-to-day benefits we offer. Those are all things that we want our employees to take advantage of.
“What we’re here to do is to support the people,” Whiteley continues. “It’s a connection to employees.” If it weren’t for the people, Whiteley doesn’t know what she’d be doing. “If I were a vet, I would be doing it for the animals, you know?”
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BCBS of Texas is proud to partner with and support TCU in fostering a health and wellness culture for employees and their families. We applaud Michelle Whiteley and the TCU team on their dedication and success in driving innovation in the benefits industry.
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