Behind the Scenes at UVA HR

Meet Who Helps Celebrate Your Achievements at UVA!

Meet Tonia Duncan-Rivers, HR Specialist, Rewards & Recognition.

Within UVA Human Resources, Rewards & Recognition team members work to honor and celebrate employee achievements through award programs and events. We asked Tonia Duncan-Rivers, an HR Specialist with the Rewards & Recognition team, to tell us about her role at UVA HR, where she has worked for almost 23 years!

Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

"Tonia and her family"I grew up in Tennessee and graduated from Tennessee Tech University with a B.S. in English-Journalism and an M.A. in Education. I married my college sweetheart, Lorenzo, and we have a son, Micah (25).

We moved to Charlottesville in 1997 for Lorenzo to accept a coaching position on UVA’s strength and conditioning staff.  I worked as a temp for about a month and then I was hired by HR as the New Employee Orientation Coordinator, which was a new position at the time. After about 18 months in that role, I moved to the Employee Relations team and from there to Training (Center for Leadership Excellence) and then to Rewards and Recognition. Prior to moving to Virginia, I was the Director of Minority Affairs at my alma mater, Tennessee Tech University, and before that I worked as an Admissions Counselor/Recruiter. While in Admissions, I wrote the proposal to create the Minority Affairs Office and the Black Cultural Center and was instrumental in naming the center after the first Black graduate of Tennessee Tech.

Q: Can you tell us what your daily life looks like working in Rewards and Recognition?

For me, most days are similar, but it really depends if there are major events going on. Let’s say it’s mid-April with no coronavirus, I’d come into the office, check email and Salesforce and then shift my focus throughout the day to whatever needed to be done for Uteam Member of the Month, the Leonard W. Sandridge Outstanding Contributor Awards, Governor’s Awards and assist Elizabeth with Service Awards and/or George with Health System Week, if needed. I’d also probably be working on the spring event for the UVA Chapter of the VA Network.

We often have impromptu meetings to brainstorm ideas for events and if there’s an event going on, we’d be running around carting supplies, doing “run throughs,” checking and re-checking catering, etc. It can get crazy sometimes with overlapping events and that’s why I have mini checklists in my spiral notebook for all programs/events that I’m working on. I use a 4-ink color pen to color code my programs. I’m such a list person! I also try to plan my week every Friday evening before leaving the office, so I know what I’ll be doing the following week.

Q: Is there one project you’ve been working on that you’re most proud of?

I’m proud of the work that was done most recently for President Ryan’s new award, Hoos Building Bridges. We took that award from inception to honoring the inaugural winners in December 2019. It was a very proud moment.

Q: How has the coronavirus changed how you work?

Spring is one of our busiest times in R&R and all of our events, such as Service Awards and Health System Week, etc., were either postponed or canceled. Because of this, I’ve been able to work on some other things related to programs that I manage, assist other teams, and take a few LinkedIn Learning classes.

Q: What is your favorite part about your job?

My favorite part about my job is making employees feel valued and appreciated. So often employees will come up to us at events such as Service Awards or Health System Week just to say thank you or to share a favorite memory. It’s also rewarding to discuss recognition strategy with managers and give them ideas for rewarding and recognizing their employees. For example, my teammates and I recently organized the first ever HR Employee Appreciation Day. I pitched the idea to my manager, who shared it with senior leadership. They liked the idea and we took it from there! Heads up managers, Employee Appreciation Day is a national holiday that’s celebrated every year on the first Friday in March. The next one is March 5, 2021!

Q: You’ve worked at UVA HR for almost 23 years. Wow! What have the different positions you’ve held taught you about the organization?

Twenty-three years is a long time to stay in one department and I feel fortunate as I reflect on it. There were times when I thought about applying for other positions at the University and even leaving Grounds, but the timing just always seemed off. Working in four different areas in HR has confirmed for me that HR is a great place to work and grow your career, flex into other areas, and gain valuable experience. Above all it’s a great place to be if you want to help others. When preparing my resume to apply for positions in “future state HR,” I hadn’t really thought about it before, but every position throughout my career involved helping others. I also noticed that my career has sort of gone in reverse considering I was catapulted from an Admissions Counselor/Recruiter to Director and then have experienced everything in between while here at UVA. I’ve been here long enough to see HR change over the years -- for example, going from one UHR to two HR organizations serving Academic Division and Medical Center, and now back to one UVA HR -- but its core mission of serving the UVA community has always stayed the same.

Q: What’s something you wish people knew about you that most don’t?

"Tonia Duncan-Rivers"Professionally, I wish people knew that I’m a thinker and that just because I’m quiet most of the time, it’s not because I’m disengaged. I’m just thinking things through and visualizing as many outcomes as possible. 

On a personal note, I think people would be surprised to know that I’m a sports fan, specifically football and basketball. I really miss watching Lorenzo and Micah play. Football was their primary sport, and both were fast as lightening on the field. I used to scream my head off in the stands! David King, I’m sure you remember the Albemarle game that you refereed, and Micah scored 5 touchdowns! I nearly lost it that night. I really miss those days! Whenever Micah visits, our family talks sports and current events at the dinner table! In full disclosure, I don’t know all the rules of the game but I try to shift the conversation to the latest sports story in the news so I can get a word in!