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Employees with Autism Become Valued Part of Bell Bank Team

Heather Eichhorn used to work part-time in the fast food industry. Like many others on the autism spectrum, she was underemployed, working a job that did not challenge her or use her skills.

Now she works as a document imaging specialist for Bell Bank, using her ability to focus intently and her attention to detail to effectively and accurately scan and index documents.

“It’s an enjoyable challenge and very fulfilling,” Heather says. “It means a lot to me to be working here. This opportunity is so amazing. I finally feel like an adult working in a professional environment. I get a lot of satisfaction from my job.”

She found her job through a partnership Bell has with Mind Shift, a Fargo-based organization that pairs high-functioning people on the autism spectrum with companies that can effectively use their skills. Mind Shift trains potential employees, called specialists, and provides ongoing support for them and the business partners.

“When I first heard about Mind Shift, I knew we wanted to partner with the organization,” says Julie Peterson Klein, Bell’s chief culture officer. “Mind Shift’s mission of ‘doing good for business while also doing good’ aligns so perfectly with Bell’s values of giving unequaled personal service, creating and sustaining a family atmosphere and giving back to our communities.”

People with autism are often overlooked for jobs because they might have difficulty with social cues and struggle with the interview process, or employers might not have enough of an understanding about autism.

Cortnee Jensen, Mind Shift’s director of community relations, says like many others, people on the autism spectrum tend to have “superpowers” and “kryptonite.” Their superpower might be excelling at highly detailed, repetitive tasks. Their kryptonite might be fluorescent lights or noises that distract them to where they can’t function. But something as simple as switching that person’s workspace lighting or allowing them to wear noise-cancelling headphones could solve the problem and give the company a highly skilled, motivated worker.

“We partnered with Mind Shift, because we wanted to give people on the autism spectrum an opportunity they may not otherwise have for a meaningful career,” Julie says. “We’ve gotten so much more in return. Our team members from Mind Shift are very talented, highly skilled people whose dedication and attention to detail are assets for our company, helping contribute to Bell Bank’s growth and success.”

Tony Thomann, Mind Shift’s executive director, says Bell’s culture and reputation as an innovative company and as a true, community partner make the bank a perfect fit for a Mind Shift partnership.

“Our partnership with Bell Bank is truly an honor,” he remarks. “From the beginning of our discussions, each Bell employee was committed to the business value our specialists could provide and to the larger community good that working with Mind Shift would do.”

Ryan Sanderson is another Mind Shift specialist who works at Bell, doing data entry.

“It’s probably my favorite job out of the six or seven jobs that I’ve had,” he remarks.

Ryan likes his co-workers and the work environment, and he says the work suits him. At his other jobs, which included working at a fast-food restaurant and a car wash, Ryan says he felt like he was just doing a job. Working at Bell is more of a career.

“This is the only job I’ve looked forward to coming to,” he comments.

Polly Thorsness, who leads Bell’s deposit operations, says she didn’t know much about autism before working with Mind Shift, but working with Heather and Ryan is no different than applying situational leadership principles (leading each employee according to their strengths) to any team member.

“I was very shamefully and embarrassingly naïve about autism. This experience has opened my eyes and heart and has given me a deeper understanding of autism, the different levels of the autism spectrum and how amazingly intelligent many people on the spectrum are,” Polly remarks. “I encourage other leaders, especially those who may be challenged in finding good applicants for open positions, to consider partnering with Mind Shift. What I am experiencing on this journey is far better than anything I could have imagined, and Bell is benefitting from filling positions with qualified workers more quickly than the interview process typically takes.”

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