Putting the human back in HR

Putting the human back in HR

This is part 1 of 5 articles highlighting women who work at the
Brazos River Authority as we celebrate Women’s History Month.

Lately, Monica Wheelis can be found with a hard hat and chainsaw on her property in China Spring, clearing land to make it more enjoyable for her family.


It has the added bonus of being therapeutic, she said, with a laugh.

The Brazos River Authority Human Resource Manager was not only inspired as a young child but shaped by a female role model. Monica now continues to place a heavy emphasis on her family and the importance of relationships. It’s a model she’s incorporated into her role as HR Manager of the roughly 250 employees at the BRA.

Since 1987, the U.S. has recognized the month of March as “Women’s History Month,” celebrating women’s contributions to history, culture and society and reflecting on the often-overlooked contributions of women to U.S. history. The actual celebration of Women’s History Month grew out of a weeklong celebration of women’s contributions organized by the school district of Sonoma, California, in 1978, according to History.com.

The BRA has many women contributing to the success of the organization that, since 1929, has worked to develop and manage the water resources of an entire river basin. Monica is one of five women currently serving on the BRA’s Management Team.

Seeing her potential

Monica was working at a mortgage company in 2004 handling payroll in the human resources department when, unbeknownst to her, her husband was singing her praise at the BRA. The person who handled payroll was leaving the BRA and the HR Manager at the time mentioned to Matt Wheelis, the Accounting Manager, the struggle in finding a replacement.

Monica said she went in for an interview and within a day found herself learning the BRA payroll system. A year and a half later, the department of four was suddenly a department of two, as Monica saw the HR Manager and HR Coordinator leave. The then-BRA General Manager/CEO, Phil Ford, interviewed Monica for the role of HR Manager. Monica said she was dismissive of the promotion because, at the time, she hadn’t finished her degree, and therefore didn’t meet the qualifications for the position.

“My first inclination was to turn down the job …But then I looked at it and said, ‘Who am I to tell the general manager no?’” Monica said. “That’s what cemented me taking the position. He saw something in me that I didn’t see. It was his reputation that he put out there to put me in that position. He didn’t get where he was without being able to make those kinds of decisions.”

Ford’s response to Monica when she said she didn’t have a degree was, “You will.” So, she did, receiving her bachelor’s degree from Tarleton State University in occupational management three years later.

The other two vacancies were eventually filled, and now Monica oversees a team of four. Though she no longer does as much of the hands-on work, she oversees the work of her department. Sometimes she misses working directly with payroll or benefits, recognition and performance, and many other HR areas.  Monica said that her department's goals are to handle HR matters consistently with empathy, compassion, and equity.

Human resources used to be strictly about processes and rules and paperwork. Now, she said they’ve worked to develop personal relationships with employees across the company.

“Our department really cares for our employees. We want to make them feel welcome when they first start and comfortable with approaching us with questions or concerns all throughout their employment and into retirement,” she said.

With this in mind, she implemented a system that is referred to as “touchpoints.”

For instance, a new hire will work with one HR employee to receive all the initial information. Then, within the first week, another member of the department reaches out to just check-in and make sure there aren’t any issues, like missing uniforms or supplies. Then, another member touches base when the new hire gets their first paycheck, ready to assist with any questions. And finally, the fourth member reaches out to the new hire when it’s time for employees to enroll in insurance to help walk that person through the process if needed.

“Throughout the first year, we’re touching base with employees a lot,” Monica said. “By doing that, we think that they’re going to feel more a part of the organization and feel more comfortable coming to HR if they have any issues. We’re trying to get that more personal touch, so they are familiar with each one of us in HR. I really think that’s how HR has evolved.”


People and numbers

Those relationships and general fellowship are a big part of why Monica enjoys working for the BRA. Before the pandemic swept the country in March 2020, the BRA regularly held activities amongst its employees that helped create the environment it has today. Monica said she loves the holiday parties, the charity events, the lunches, all the little activities.

“What a great group of people that we have working for us,” she said. “You don’t find that everywhere. More people ought to know what our employees do and how hard they work.”

While the pandemic has robbed BRA’s Waco Central Office the opportunities to express itself creatively that way, Monica said, it hasn’t put a stop to one of her favorite aspects of her position: working with numbers. Monica said she enjoys the challenge of working with the budget, evaluating market rates in different fields, ensuring employees are fairly compensated, and balancing paying new hires the right amount while also respecting the amount being paid to those who have been employed much longer.

“I enjoy that challenge of trying to find that sweet spot to bring in the really good applicant and at the same time not harm the existing employees,” she said.

Stamina and strength

The role model who helped shape her to be the strong woman, mother, and manager she is today was her stepmother, Gretta Wild. Monica said her stepmother, at 20 years old, married Monica‘s dad, instantly becoming a mother to four children under the age of 7.

“For her to take on four children that were not her own … She raised us as if we were her own,” Monica said. “She had such stamina and strength. To put her education on hold, leave her family, and take on that responsibility as a 20-year-old, she really inspired me.”

Monica said her stepmother continued to impress, moving with her new family away from her own family and friends in Alabama to live in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Texas. She made and patched everyone’s clothes. She kept a garden and learned to can fruits and vegetables to help the household get by, all while working full time.

“When I turned 20, I remember reflecting back to what she faced at that point in her life,” Monica said. “I had one son at the time I was 20. I can’t imagine raising four children and being 20 years old.”

Monica and her husband Matt raised two boys and now have two grandsons, who take up a lot of her free time.

That is, of course, when she’s not on their property clearing trees.