Bait and Switch Hiring Practices in the ABA Industry

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Dr. Todd A. Ward

Here’s the scenario: You interview for a company and it goes really well.  They hear your passions and tell you how you are a perfect fit for their company.  You are excited to start your new job but once you get there, the job you are actually doing isn’t the one you interviewed for.  This is bait and switch hiring, as described by the Houston Chronicle.

The Financial Post notes that this unethical business practice is dangerous for the long-term health of a company.  It can produce disengaged workers, damage the company culture, increase staff turnover, and “take a nasty bite out of a business’ bottom line.” They go on to describe four common targets of bait and switch offers:

  1. Wages: You are promised a raise after X months of joining the company, only to find out that the raise never came.  In this case, the company is betting on the employee sticking it out with the company rather than going through the hassle of finding a new job.
  2. Culture: If you have a decidedly corporate culture, focused on aggressive sales and growth, say so.  Don’t try to sell your company as a laid-back Google.
  3. Work-Life Balance: The phrase “work hard play hard” is a red flag.  It is often code for “we will work you like a slave.”  This is a great way to lose employees and deter new hires, especially for younger more creative people.
  4. Work: During the interview you may have been promised opportunities to work on high-level or cutting edge projects, but the reality is that you are doing grunt work that doesn’t value your unique skill set.

The company I/O Advisory noted that many times employees in such situations tolerate these things for a while in the hopes that their situation is temporary, and that the job they were hired for is coming.  But it never does.

The Applied Behavior Analysis Industry

The autism industry, of which Applied Behavior Analysis is a major player, is fueled more and more by venture capital, according to Healthcare Business Today.  For many of you that have worked in the ABA industry in recent years, you have direct experience providing services under an increasingly corporate model.  At the heart of the model is aggressive growth fueled by the pursuit of billable hours, often at the expense of work life balance and quality of services, all violations of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. For example, Code 5.02 states that Board Certified Behavior Analysts should only take on a volume of cases commensurate with their ability to be effective. Code 2.01 further states that a BCBA should only accept clients if they have the available resources to do so.  Finally, Code 2.09 states that BCBAs have a duty to advocate for an appropriate level of billable hours – including situations in which billable hours are unnecessarily high.

In fact, a study was published in the European Journal of Behavior Analysis by Plantiveau, Dounavi, & Virues-Ortegain in 2018 indicating high levels of burnout among BCBAs.  Burnout as a function of billable hours isn’t unique to ABA  It appears in other industries whose revenue is based on the billable hour as well.  Lawyerist, for example, describes this phenomenon in the legal profession.  The contingencies inherent in billable hours tend to produce burnout, deteriorate work life balance, and sour productivity.

In the ABA world, it is a safe bet that many bait and switch situations are heavily influenced by the underlying business model based on the billable hour.  As an ABA practitioner, what can you do in these situations?  First, understand that a company who engages in bait and switch hiring is in violation of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts.

For example, Code 7.01 states that behavior analysts must promote an ethical work culture. Hiring someone under false pretenses, whether through a deceptive job description or interview, is promoting an unethical work culture that doesn’t value your professional skill set.

Code 8.01 states that behavior analysts should avoid false and deceptive statements including those related to work activities. Bait and switch hiring is characterized at its core by false and deceptive statements, and falls squarely within this code.

Finally, Code 7.02 states that if you believe there is a legal or ethical violation, you should first attempt to bring it to the attention of an individual in your work place.  If that doesn’t resolve the issue, you should report the matter to the appropriate employer, supervisor, or regulatory authority, including submitting a formal complaint to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.

Have you experienced bait and switch hiring?  Share your story in the comments below.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Yes some of the issues you bring up I have experienced first hand, it was very disappointing not to mention embarrassing to the field that these organizations exist in our field

  2. It is important to note that many agencies are not necessarily run by BCBAs, meaning they are not ethically obligated to adhere to the Professional Ethical Compliance Code created by the BACB. One thing I recommend is speaking to current employees of the organization, if possible. This also emphasizes two points: the grass is not always greener on the other side AND it is essential to transition from agency to agency appropriately, and without burning any bridges.

    • Yes, that adherence issue you mention highlights loopholes in the accountability system for sure! Hopefully raising awareness of these issues will give more support to BCBAs feeling pressured to act unethically to keep their jobs. Moreover, the case could easily be made that the agencies themselves are the ones who are burning bridges. We seem to have a psychological bias in the workplace to cowtow to unethical corporations simply because they are a source of jobs. But BCBAs need to feel safe and supported.

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