For Tech Companies, Hiring Workers With Disabilities ‘Cool’
When Eric Lin started his job at Zendesk, like many, he had trouble pronouncing CEO Mikkel Svane’s name.
“I told him it’s just like a nickel, so the nickel became our thing,” said Svane.
It became a daily mnemonic ritual — the pair would compare the age and design of the coinage in their pockets.
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Two years ago, Lin was Zendesk’s first hire through The Arc, a nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities find jobs.
At Zendesk, Lin, 26, helps with office support, including crucial startup tasks such as keeping snacks and caffeine stocked. He has grown to be an integral part of the customer-service software firm’s Mid-Market office in San Francisco.
“The nickel became our thing, but he has routines with all the employees,” said Svane. “Everybody in the company has really embraced it.”
The Arc has placed others with developmental disabilities — ranging from autism spectrum disorders to Down syndrome — at more than 80 companies in San Francisco. The tech sector is a growing client base, with hires from The Arc at 13 local firms. Salesforce employs 14 people through The Arc, and Zendesk is looking to add more. Twitter just signed on.
“Tech is really rolling,” said Meredith Manning, spokeswoman for The Arc’s San Francisco chapter. “I think we’ve become cool. I don’t know how that happened.”
At Zendesk, Lin’s main job is to take the pressure off office administration staff. He works a four-hour shift each day, running through an eight-page checklist of tasks that include stocking and cleaning the conference rooms and kitchen.
“It’s a big checklist,” he said.
Lin, often dressed in a Giants jersey, likes to arrive a little early so he can hang out in the kitchen and chat with whomever is around. He remembers the favorite munchies of pretty much every employee on all three floors. On occasion, Lin makes special snack deliveries right to the desks of lucky Zendeskers.
“Eric is a really hard worker,” said Ainsley Hill, the facilities manager at Zendesk and Lin’s supervisor. “He also really helps to lighten the mood around the office. If you walk into the kitchen having a bad day, Eric immediately makes you feel better.”
When The Arc gets a new client, like Lin, the nonprofit gives them try-outs at several companies to find one that’s the right fit for both employer and employee. Lin works for Zendesk, but The Arc supplies a job coach who is available as needed to both Lin and Zendesk. If Lin gets a new task, for example, his job coach might spend some time at Zendesk to help him get the hang of it.
The Arc’s hires make an average of about $12.10 an hour. If The Arc’s own data are any indication, adults with developmental disabilities are performing far better in San Francisco’s labor market than nationally, with an employment rate of 60 versus 44 percent nationwide.
Most of The Arc’s hiring happens through word of mouth.
Seeking other firms
“I’m always calling around trying to get other tech companies to work with The Arc,” said Todd Janzen, chief demo officer at Salesforce.
“This obviously isn’t pure charity,” he said. “What we’ve found with The Arc is we get really dedicated employees. We get someone who does the job really well, and they do it with a smile.”
Janzen said that in the tech industry in particular, where job titles are often fluid and hyper-specific, there are many opportunities for employees with developmental disabilities.
But the goal is also to give employees like Lin a chance at a career — not just a job. At Salesforce, The Arc’s hires work everywhere from the mailroom to IT; one has moved up to manage the other employees from The Arc.
Since he started at Zendesk, Lin has doubled his hours and responsibilities. Now, he’s gunning for full time and moving up to do jobs such as handling the mail. (He also has a part-time spring-season gig at AT&T Park as a Ghirardelli chocolatier.)
When Zendesk opens its new office space at the historic Eastern Outfitting Co. building at 1019 Market St., Lin will serve that location as well.
“Going back and forth will be a new challenge,” he said.