Human Resources for the ABA Entrepreneur

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D (bSci21Media, LLC)

Dawn Mackey & Jamie Pagliaro (Rethink Behavioral Health)

If you are familiar with Skinner’s writings, you know that he had big ideas for the science of behavior.  When he talked about the science, he talked about large global issues such as overpopulation, pollution, education, war, and so on.  He had a clear vision for the field – to solve the world’s problems with the science of behavior.  Now, approximately 80 years after he began articulating his vision in Behavior of Organisms, I think it is safe to say that we still have a long way to go.   

In my opinion, Skinner’s vision can be fully realized only after the field of behavior analysis fills a gap in its collective repertoire – entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurs create the majority of the jobs for behavior analysts, and the field tends to grow where the jobs are created – the tremendous growth in autism services is a primary example.  And it makes perfect sense, behavior analysts are just regular people that need to pay the mortgage and feed the kids.  The more employment options behavior analysts have to meet these basic life needs, the more the field will diversify.

Some of you reading this will undoubtedly say “but wait, Organizational Behavior Management is all we need to be entrepreneurs.”  I beg to differ.  You see, OBM and entrepreneurship encapsulate two different skillsets.  OBM, by definition, focuses on managing behavior.  As such, the majority of work in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management focuses on increasing the performance of employees in organizations. 

You could say that OBM assumes the existence of an organization in order to fulfill its primary role.  Entrepreneurs, by contrast, create an organization from nothing and adapt policies and processes to ensure its survival.  Creating and maintaining an organization encapsulates much more than performance management and includes a host of business skills not typically taught in a behavior analysis graduate program.  Many such skills fall under the perview of Human Resources (HR).  According to Wikipedia, an HR department “performs human resource management, overseeing various aspects of employment, such as compliance with labour law and employment standards, administration of employee benefits, and some aspects of recruitment and dismissal.”

If you are an ABA entrepreneur looking to hire your first employee, or an entrepreneur with staff but who has yet to consult with an HR professional or employment lawyer, I highly recommend you watch the wonderfully informative webinar by Dawn Mackey, Director of Business Solutions for Rethink Behavioral Health.  Dawn, who has been in the ABA industry for 15+ years working with a number of startups as an HR consultant, provided insight into the murky world of employment law, which she herself described as a “gray area” due to the multitude of regulations at both the state and federal level. 

If you are saying to yourself “I don’t need an HR professional,” take a minute to see if you have answers to the following questions:

Do you know the difference between an exempt and non-exempt employee?

Under what conditions can salary link to actual hours worked verses a fixed paycheck?

When can you hire employees versus independent contractors?

What are the potential risks of hiring both employees and independent contractors?

When is it legal to require non-compete agreements?

If you cannot immediately and confidently respond to such questions, you should watch the webinar.  Even if you are telling yourself “I can just Google it”, Google is not able to talk to you about your unique business goals, evaluate compliance with employment regulations based on your unique business goals, or make recommendations to manage future growth of your unique ABA business.

When you start your company, as Dawn says, you will “wear lots of hats.”  In other words, in the beginning you may be the only employee of your company, which also makes you the CEO, the accountant, the salesperson, and the HR representative.  As your company grows you will face your first hiring decision – should you hire an employee or an independent contractor?

According to Dawn, it depends on a few things, which she calls the “Economic Realities Test”:

  1. Will the worker perform a service that is integral to the employer’s business?  If an independent contractor is only working for one company they may not be “independent” in the eyes of the IRS, which could create problems for your business should you get audited.
  2. Is the position permanent?  Usually, a company seeks out an independent contractor because that person can offer something that the positions in your company cannot.  One common example includes creating an employee handbook that outlines the policies and procedures of your company.
  3. Will the worker utilize the employer’s facilities and equipment?  Remember the key word is “independent.”  If you hire someone as an independent contractor but provide them with a company laptop, phone, car, and office, they may technically be an employee in practice.
  4. Will the employer control the work processes of the worker?  Employees have bosses, independent contractors don’t.  Bosses can exert a great deal of influence over the way employees do their job.  With independent contractors, however, the emphasis is on the outcome of the work, not the work process.
  5. Will the worker potentially experience a profit or a loss?  Independent contractors should provide their services from within a business structure, which allows the worker to experience a profit or loss based on their contracting services.  If a contractor is operating as an individual, rather than a business, profit or loss is not relevant.  A contractor who does not have their own business can raise red flags to the IRS.  Remember, employees are people but contractors provide a service.
  6. Will the employer allow a good deal of initiative and judgment to perform the job?  Again, an independent contractor is “independent” meaning they retain primary control of workflow.  If an independent contractor reports to someone who resembles a “boss” in any sense of the word, the IRS might hold that against you in an audit.  Independent contractors largely determine how they are going to carry out the work to generate the final product desired from the client company.

Are you prepared for an IRS audit?  If the very thought of an audit causes even a little anxiety, check out Dawn’s presentation, which will get you started on the right track to a successful business. She provides great resources for any business owner whether you are just starting out or are looking to make adjustments to your current HR hiring practices.

About Rethink Behavioral Health

Rethink Behavioral Health provides the tools every behavioral health provider needs to manage their practice and deliver quality ABA treatment effectively & efficiently. Rethink’s easy to use web-based software streamlines client care with sophisticated yet intuitive tools for both clinicians & administrators. For more information, visit

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  His company aims to disseminate behavior analyisis to the masses through non-academic publication outlets.  Todd is an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues and previously a Guest Associate Editor for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at[email protected]

2 Comments on "Human Resources for the ABA Entrepreneur"

  1. Criss Wilhite | October 2, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Reply

    Great article. Will you post it on FB? I’d like to share it with all my students, and especially former students running companies.

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