As University Benefits’ new director, Shannon Edwards is responsible for all university-wide benefits and leave programs.
Prior to joining UFHR last month, Edwards served as the chief operating officer responsible for human resources and school operations for Charlotte Christian School, a large K-12 private school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
UF at Work recently sat down with Edwards to learn more about her career and goals as new director.
How have the first few weeks in the role been so far?
I would liken it to drinking out of a fire hose! It’s great. I’m taking it all in. It’s a challenge learning a new culture and who the players are, but it’s been fun so far. I’m excited for the opportunity.
You oversee a Benefits team of 22 people. Can you describe the role of the team for people who may not know?
First and foremost, the Benefits team’s responsibility is to provide exceptional customer service to employees and retirees of UF from a benefits perspective. Part of the team is more front-facing, meeting with employees face-to-face and helping them through challenges. There’s also our Leave team, which supports employees wanting to go on FMLA or parental leave, for example. We also have a more behind-the-scenes team that keeps our processes functioning, making sure paychecks are correct and that we’re accurately getting files to vendors to prevent loss of coverage. Lastly, we have a Special Projects team that supports Aid-A-Gator, our Benefits communications, Open Enrollment and the Employee Benefits & Wellness Fair, to name a few things.
How did you first get interested in HR and the benefits world specifically?
I literally was raised in a benefits family. My mother did it for a living; she was an insurance broker. So I’ve been in this space my entire life. When I graduated from Georgia Southern with a business degree, I started on the insurance vendor side with a vendor that provided medical coverage to large employers. I spent a few years on that side of the house, working with HR people all of the time, and then I was recruited by one of my clients, a health care company.
I jumped over onto the HR side almost 20 years ago, starting as an HR generalist. I liked it but frankly I have a benefits bent to me, so when the manager of benefits position opened in this company, I jumped at that. I eventually added total rewards, compensation and wellness to the role. After that, I was director of employee benefits at Family Dollar, which is based in Charlotte and where I oversaw benefits for 42,000 employees. Later, I went to Charleston to become the director of total rewards for a technology company, and then I was recruited to start an HR function at Charlotte Christian School. I was there for 11 years, basically running all school operations, and I loved it. My three children benefited greatly from the education there.
Why did you decide to join UF?
I did some soul searching and thought, “Where do I see myself career-wise? What brings me the most joy in my job?” I knew I wanted to be in benefits and that I wanted to be in Florida. So on spring break, I typed the words “benefits jobs Florida” into my search bar. This job came up, and I thought, “This is mine; this is what I want to do.” I had done corporate and nonprofit benefits, but nothing in higher education yet. This was too great of an opportunity to pass up. To be able to be at an institution like Florida is incredible.
What are some of your short-term goals overseeing University Benefits?
Right now, we’re Open Enrollment-focused. There’s a very short turnaround to communicate information from the state to employees, so that is first and foremost on my list. The second goal concerns the time off and leave space. We’re working on a pilot program for FMLA and actively assessing the different leave options we offer at UF. I am also passionate about looking at the team and making sure we’re providing the highest level of customer service that we can and getting in front of our customers in order to build relationships. I want to be sure we’re working smarter and more efficiently, as there are a lot of manual processes.
“When you work in benefits, you’re working with employees at their most vulnerable times. There are the great highs, such as having a first child or the excitement of walking in the door about to retire, and lows, such as dealing with a diagnosis or a death. We’ve got employees at such a vulnerable time, and it’s gratifying to walk alongside them and help them.”
Could you share some of your longer-term goals?
One long-term goal is improving how we best communicate to employees what great benefits we really do have. We have to look at all of the different ways to communicate and make sure we’re reaching everybody and clearly letting them know what benefits they have and how to make changes if they need to. Part of this is creating opportunities for the team to meet face-to-face with the people they’ve been emailing and calling in order to foster connections and relationships.
Has anything surprised you in the role so far?
I was pleasantly surprised by what rich benefits and time-off offerings the institution provides. I think if you’ve been here a while, you can lose sight of that. Coming from the nonprofit world, the benefits here are phenomenal and I’m so excited to be a part of that. It’s important to talk about benefits from a total rewards perspective. I think we miss the mark if we talk in silos about pay, time off and benefits separately and not all together.
What is important for employees to know as we approach Open Enrollment next month?
Don’t assume what you currently have is what you still need. We all have to be wise consumers of our individual benefits options. Our lives change every single year, and we have an opportunity once a year to change our elections. So I’d encourage all employees to assess from all angles—do you need to decrease your life insurance or add dental coverage or change your health insurance in some way? ALEX, our online virtual benefits counselor tool, is really helpful in showing employees what their options are. Taking just a few minutes every year to assess if what you selected last year is still the right thing for you and your family is very important.
What is the most satisfying part of this work?
When you work in benefits, you’re working with employees at their most vulnerable times. There are the great highs, such as having a first child or the excitement of walking in the door about to retire, and lows, such as dealing with a diagnosis or a death. We’ve got employees at such a vulnerable time, and it’s gratifying to walk alongside them and help them. We want to continue to be a true partner as employees journey through their career. In 20-plus years of doing this work, the ability to impact lives with what we do is something I never take for granted.