Monica Whalen Utah Employers Council

UB Insider #7: Alumni Series – Monica Whalen

About this episode:

In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ online editor Lisa Christensen sits down with Monica Whalen, Utah president of the Employer’s Council and a 30 Women to Watch alumna.  In their conversation they address current hot-button HR issues that employers need to be aware of and how being recognized as a leader gave Whalen the confidence to take her organization to the next level. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.


Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider, brought to you by 30 Women to Watch, Utah Business’ annual who’s who for women business leaders. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business. I’m here today with Monica Whalen, who was honored as one of our 30 Women to Watch last year. Hello again, Monica.

Monica Whalen: Hi Lisa.

Lisa Christensen: When we recognized you last year, you were the President and CEO of the Employer’s Council which has gone through some changes in the last year. Tell us about them.

Monica Whalen: Well, in the last 12 months, I have been through a tremendous transformation. Not only personally, in terms of myself as a leader, but also the organization that I head up. We merged with a sister employer association headquartered in Denver, Colorado that has three offices in Colorado, one in Arizona and now one in Utah. And I have to say, that in some way, being named one of Utah’s women to watch last year gave me the courage and emboldened me that, hey, I really am a leader. And it helped me realize that I needed to be brave and make tough choices. And one of those was that we had taken our employer’s council, that represents about 575 Utah businesses, as far as we could on our own as this small entrepreneurial type of organization. And reached our limits.

To get to the next level, we needed to decide, are we going to jump? And I did find within myself that courage and foresight to say, I can see the future and the future is that we need to build a bigger, better, stronger employer association for the Utah business community. So let’s do it! 1-2-3 and we jumped! So last October 1st, the Employer’s Council merged with Mountain State’s Employer’s Council out of Denver and now we have created one of the largest employer associations in the country. We represent the entire Western region.

It has been very busy for me to, first of all, to recognize that we needed to change and embrace the future. What were the solutions? What were our options? And vet them, choose the best one for us. And then get busy on putting together that transition and that merger. Then, for these last seven months, supporting not only our member companies in Utah, but obviously the employees through the change. Because you’re out of your comfort zone and it takes a leader who can say, hey everybody, come along with me. The future is bright. We need to be courageous and go for it.

Lisa Christensen: That’s fantastic and very exciting. I’m so glad we could play a tiny part in that.

Monica Whalen: Well thank you! And you know, there’s always a little bit of risk in the unknown. But I have been very pleasantly pleased at the response to the coming together of these two strong employer associations. The Utah business community has seen it as a positive as I saw it. They recognize that there are advantages to them in terms of additional services, greater depth in our knowledge and the ability to take advantage of systems and processes that we would not have been able to build on their own.

Lisa Christensen: That’s wonderful. So how has your role change in this new, expanded organization?

Monica Whalen: Well, I don’t think I fully realized the depth of the change to myself personally. I knew, yeah, sure we’re merging. The CEO of the larger organization out of Denver is going to remain the CEO. Part of our negotiations was that I would remain the Utah president. And I am one of the officers of the merged entity. But, it also required some amount of letting go on my part. Where I used to be the only person in charge, lonely at the top, now I have this great team of colleagues and fellow officers and we are problem solving together. So my role changed in terms of how decisions are made, and the collaboration. And also, with some of the more operational things being taken off my plate, it has allowed me the time to really begin to focus on promoting the Employer’s Council in Utah and bringing our mission to the masses.

We used to say we’re the best kept secret in town because we had very, very loyal members. Some of our member organizations had been with us for more than 50 years. But, we didn’t really have a budget to do a lot of advertising or marketing, and now we do. So part of my new role is to make sure that the mission continues in Utah for our member organizations here, and expands. And that I’m an ambassador, if you will, to the value that we are able to bring to the state’s employers.

Lisa Christensen: You mentioned having to kind of grow into a new role and kind of having to have a lot of courage in the last year in your role. But when you took the role initially as President and CEO in Utah for the Employer’s Council, you were the first female president in the organization’s history. What kinds of things did you have to do, you know, when you took the reins there to distinguish yourself, to I guess prove yourself?

Monica Whalen: Well, it was a little bit eye opening when I was being considered by our Board of Trustees for that position. And some of the people who had been on the board for many years and were more mature in their stage of life, were trying to wrap their minds around the fact that a woman could be the leader of a business organization in particular. And so there were some funny comments and some inappropriate questions. But ultimately they made the right decision and gave me the job. So I would say that, obviously it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle because I was chosen to be the President and CEO. But initially, in those years, and I think probably to this day, for women in business in Utah and probably throughout the country, there is a need to gain credibility and to gain trust that sometimes is just more freely given to males.

With women, people are slower to automatically give you that credibility until you’ve earned it. Now, for me personally, that wasn’t something that I bristled at or rebelled against because I’m born and raised in Montana. And I come from the kind of background where you work hard. You do prove yourself. You do the very best you can and you get what you deserve. And so that was already part of my DNA that hey, these people aren’t just going to throw rose petals at my feet and make a nice cushy path for me to walk down. I’m going to have to earn this.

As a woman, I think the other thing that I did have to work hard at and I would say, to this day, most women professionals still face this, is an unspoken questioning about our commitment, our dependability. Are we just going to run off and have babies? Or if we get married now, are we going to say ok, great, now I have a gravy train and I don’t have to work anymore! Well, Lisa, as you know, we are in professional positions because we want to work, because we have something to contribute. And that’s what gets us up and going every day and we’re excited about. We’re not looking for somebody else to make our money for us. We want to make our own money! But I think that there is a continuing questioning about a professional woman’s dependability and commitment long-term in the organization.

Lisa Christensen: Do you think that that has improved any over the last, you know, 20 years?

Monica Whalen: I do see improvements over the last few decades. From the time that I first entered the professional working world right out of college, we’re going on 30 years now, to today because of a couple of core reasons. One, there are more women in the workplace, more professional women and more women striving for the top, not just settling for entry-level jobs. And secondly, because we are hearing those women speak truth. Say, if you really want to rise to the top, nobody is going to hand it to you. You have to earn it. And also things like, you have to lean in. You can’t just sit back and think that even based upon your talents and your know-how and your experience that opportunities are going to come your way. You have to be willing to do the hard work and lean in, go the extra mile, capitalize on those opportunities. So I think that because there’s more of us in the workplace, it’s not becoming as much of an oddity as it was perhaps 50 years ago. And secondly that we, if we talk to each other, women to women about what it really takes to succeed and what it takes to maximize your earning capacity, that when we speak truth to each other, we accept that it’s a long haul. We have to put in the work to get the rewards.

Lisa Christensen: And you certainly have put in a lot of work in that respect and it has paid off for you. You are well known for your expertise in human resources, and human resources is one of those things that kind of tends to be overlooked by a lot of people. But I’ve noticed lately, there have been some human resource issues that have been very really widely talked about. One is the issue of gender neutral bathrooms. The other is the overtime law that will go into effect this summer that will require employers to pay employees, who are currently on salary but making less than $50,000 a year, overtime. Do you mind if we just talk about those and how they apply to Utah employers?

Monica Whalen: I’d love to talk about those because they are two current hot topics that employers need to be paying attention to. And especially the very soon to be released new regulation on the overtime. Employers should be planning for that right now.

On the issue of the bathrooms, this is an issue that is sensitive and tends to generate a lot more buzz than the reality really calls for. In fact, Utah was way ahead of the curve on this one. We passed a statewide law in Utah a year ago. It went into effect a year ago, in May of 2015. That added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of characteristics in Utah that you cannot discriminate against somebody on in the workplace. And the counter to adding those to the discrimination laws across the country, and we saw some states get it wrong, was, well what about my rights to express my religious or moral beliefs that do not condone that kind of behavior? And Utah was the first state that got all the stakeholders at the table and was willing to recognize the sincerity of the various positions around the table instead of fighting and finger pointing and calling each other names.

We then got to work on finding a compromise that everybody could live with. And the basic core of that is a mutual respect for each other’s opinions. In other words, it’s this idea of this inclusiveness. Recognizing that everybody doesn’t have to agree with me, but I do deserve to be respected in my viewpoint. And so we were able to craft that law in a way that protected employees’ rights to express their opinions and thoughts about their religious and moral beliefs at work as well as outside of work. But we drew an outer limit on that protection by saying that the expression of your beliefs at work had to be tempered in a reasonableness and a respectfulness such that if it was disruptive or harassing or in direct conflict with the essential business related interests of the employer, then you’ve gone too far.

The compromise upon which we based the idea of a person’s personal sexuality and gender identity does not really tell you whether they are a good worker or not, whether they are talented, they’re passionate, they’re ready to show up every day. That, just like race and age and religion isn’t a marker of a good employee. And so because that had been a barrier to equal employment opportunity in Utah, we were able to remove that barrier and at the same time allow for religious freedom.

Part of that law that implemented a year ago in Utah, was a provision about bathrooms which has everybody up in a tizzy today. But the provision in our law said, rightly so, I think, because I’m a big advocate for employers being able to choose for themselves the rules that govern their workplace that make sense for them. And this provision provided that an employer may establish reasonable rules and policies regarding sex specific, gender specific bathrooms as long as those rules provided for reasonable accommodation based on gender identity. So again, this idea of compromise. And yes, employers, you may establish what makes sense for your physical facilities or your particular workforce, or what aligns with your culture. But at the same time, we’re not going to tolerate disrespect or digging in of heels and being unwilling to reasonably accommodate a situation where there may be a need for a creative solution like a gender neutral bathroom or a bathroom, a family bathroom.

It’s not just about what physical anatomy you have determining which bathroom stall you should go in. It’s much larger than that. Especially here in Utah where we have lots of kids. What about the parent that wants to bring their child with them into the bathroom rather than leaving them out in the hall? And that child may not be the same gender as the sign on the door. We do have to get more creative in our ideas of what works for our society. And what is a respectful, livable compromise where we’re not putting anyone in danger. We’re not being disruptive or forcing somebody into unsafe situations, we’re just trying to go for a live and let live type of culture.

Lisa Christensen: That’s great that Utah has already allowed for that. But one thing that employers here are going to have deal with that hasn’t maybe been provided for already is the overtime issue.

Monica Whalen: Hopefully it’s not news to anyone that we’re expecting, in the next few weeks, the final regulation from the Department of Labor to come out that changes, for the first time in many years, who is exempt from the overtime law in this country. And what that means by exempt is, are you in a classification of workers such that even if you work more than 40 hours a week, you don’t have to be paid any extra money. You don’t have to be paid that legally otherwise mandated overtime requirement.

The change that we know is coming is that the salary threshold level is rising dramatically. From its current rate of about $23,000-$24,000 annually to somewhere between $46,000-$51,000 annually. There has been some recent speculation about where is it going to land? But it’s $50,000 give or take. That is creating a ripple effect of considerations for employers because most of the employees that they have classified as salaried, supervisors or working managers who work side by side with their employees, but they’re paid a salary, and they supervise people. They don’t have to punch a time clock. They don’t earn overtime. All of that will change. Because unless you are willing to raise the salary of people in those kinds of positions, more administrative positions or working supervisor type of positions to that $50,000 a year give or take, just the fact that they supervise is no longer going to classify them as an exempt employee. So you will either have to have them start punching that time clock, reporting their hours and when they work more than 40 hours in a week, paying them overtime, which is time and a half the hourly rate equivalent of their current salary, or as I mentioned before, raise their salaries. So that’s the financial implications that employers need to plan for right now. But in addition to financial implications, there are also operational and employee relation implications to consider.

Lisa Christensen: And can you expand on some of those?

Monica Whalen: So operationally, what I mean there is if you want to control this anticipated increase in labor costs by then saying ok, nobody works any overtime. Sure we’ll take all of these salaried, exempt employees and now they are considered non-exempt. So they track their hours and they just can’t work more than 40 hours in a week. No overtime owed, they get the same amount of money, everything’s great right? No. Because the average American works somewhere between 4-8 hours of overtime per week. What’s going to happen to those hours? Operationally, can you increase efficiencies? Do you need to hire additional people? Or it may be more cost effective to go ahead and allow the overtime to continue to work. But now you’re going to have to think about, can I pass that cost on to my customers? So operationally, the implications are: How do we get the same amount of work done with fewer hours? Or, can we get the same end result by working fewer hours?

On the employee relations implications side, there are things to consider in terms of people’s view of their value as a salaried, exempt employee being changed to, perhaps, an hourly paid non-exempt employee. And also, there will often become some compensation design challenges. Because you may have somebody who is in your classification as supervisor, who makes more than $50,000 currently because of the length of time they’ve been with the company or the experience that they have, and an employee in that same classification who’s making less than $50,000. So now you have two people in the same job classification, the same job grade, doing the same job but one of them earns overtime and one of them doesn’t. So that’s another type of implication from an employee relations standpoint about how do we make our job grades and our pay ranges fair and make sense when we may have people who straddle the line between receiving overtime and not receiving overtime?

Lisa Christensen: That does sound like a mine field a lot of people are going to have to try to cross safely.

Monica Whalen: There is help available. You should be talking with your advisors or your attorneys or the Employer’s Council about how to navigate the financial, the operational and the employee relation implications of these changes that are coming down the pipe.

Lisa Christensen: Well great. Thank you so much Monica for talking with us today.

Monica Whalen: Thank you.

Lisa Christensen: Again, Monica was one of last year’s 30 Women to Watch and this year’s honorees will be recognized on May 11th. Also, I just wanted to remind everyone again, as Monica offered, if you have questions about these HR issues you can look to your own legal counsel or talk to the Employer’s Council.

Thanks to Pat Parkinson for production help as well as additional help from Adva Biton. Let us know what you think by emailing us at or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. Be sure to check us out on iTunes or Stitcher where you can download all of our episodes. Thank you for listening.