Onboarding Best Practices for your ABA Agency


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

President, bSci21Media, LLC

Dawn Mackey & Jamie Pagliaro

Rethink Behavioral Health

Look around your company.  The majority of staff you employ today will eventually leave – it’s just a matter of time.  Instead of trying to fight it, try instead to create a company culture that fosters employee relationships for as long as possible, while accepting the inevitable.  There is plenty of research to support that designing and implementing an effective onboarding program can result in an increase in staff productivity and tenure. That was the message of Dawn Mackey, Director of Business Solutions for Rethink Behavioral Health, in her recent webinar titled Beyond the Job Offer: Onboarding Best Practices.  Fostering relationships starts with an effective onboarding process that continues through the duration of an employee’s time with your company.  You can think of onboarding as an ongoing socialization process wherein new hires assimilate into your company’s culture and, if all goes well, will reaffirm the employees’ commitment to your team.

Like other human service industries, the clinical ABA industry is no stranger to turnover.  According to Dawn, in her 15 plus years of experience in the ABA industry, turnover can range from 30%-70% for front-line ABA staff, and from 10%-30% for BCBAs.  Moreover, 50% of all hourly employees will leave within the first 120 days.  Effective onboarding practices can be a way to mitigate turnover and its costly effects on your company, but it has to be done right.

But before we discuss how to onboard the right way, let’s talk about how NOT to do it, from Dawn’s perspective:

Information Overload – When starting a new job, everything is new, and a person can only retain so much information at one time.  The information provided in the onboarding process is vital to the future success of your staff. If you overload your new hires right out of the gate, you will create problems down the road because the information was likely not effectively communicated.  Moreover, your company might not come across in the best light, which could affect long-term team building and commitment.  Try breaking up your two-day, 16-hour training into more manageable chunks, for the sake of your employees and the long-term health of your company.

Poor Planning – Aside from the interview, onboarding creates a strong first impression on your new hires. You want to come across as having it together.  Make sure you are taking the time to ensure your new hires have the resources to succeed on day one – the tools that they will be using in their role such as computers, phones, email should be up and working and ready to use. If your new hire arrives to work and you are not prepared and have a plan in place, they will begin to question if they made the right decision when they accepted your offer of employment.

Boring Delivery – “I love my job because my coworkers are so boring” said no one ever.  Don’t be a bore.  If you can incorporate a sense of humor into your onboarding process, and your larger company culture, new hires will feel more at ease and welcomed in their new company.

No Interactivity – Interactively engaging your new employees in the onboarding process places contingencies on their behavior and gives them a bit of ownership in the process.  Sitting through a day-long presentation passively receiving information from a talking head is a great way to create more work for yourself in the future when your employees aren’t retaining the information from your presentation. Instead, try incorporating opportunities for active responding during your presentations and have your new hires share their past experiences in the process.  Not only will your audience retain the information better, but they will be happier, more engaged, and leave the session with greater rapport with your leaders and other staff.

Overlooking your Employee’s Generation – Most people likely overlook the generational differences among their staff.  We are mainly talking about Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials, each of whom come with their own sets of very broad values or reinforcers.   For example, Baby Boomers tend to value professional development opportunities and the traditional performance evaluation process.  Gen Xers tend to value clearly defined priorities and metrics, in addition to access to information and resources.  Millennials tend to value community and professional growth.  Of course, these are very broad generalizations that don’t apply to everyone, but generational differences are easy to overlook. If you take the time to better understand what may motivate different generations in the workplace this could be a winning strategy in your onboarding program.

So now that you know how NOT to do onboarding, let’s look at a few key elements of an effective onboarding program.

Identify the key players. – The onboarding process will look different depending on the type of job to which the onboarding process is designed.  It will also look different depending on the size of your company.  In smaller companies, people tend to wear many hats, whereas larger companies have the resources to hire specialists across all aspects of the onboarding process.  The more people you have participating in the onboarding process, the more time you want to invest in making sure all of the pieces are coordinated and flow well.  The last thing you want to do, says Dawn, is to put new staff in client’s home and then realize you can’t bill for their services because they aren’t yet credentialed based on your stakeholder’s requirements.

Incorporate support systems. Onboarding spans many different departments, from payroll, billing, IT, and beyond.  Coordinating this massive effort requires technological support systems to ensure a smooth ride.  Consider developing checklists that are shared online between departments such that all of the key players know where each new employee is in the process.  You can develop the checklists within 30-, 60-, or 90-day timelines based on each position going through onboarding (e.g., front line staff vs BCBA).

Get the basic information out of the way before the first day.  Onboarding includes orientation, but it is much more than that.  If you can, try to knock out some of the “house cleaning” duties beforehand.  Credentialing paperwork, for instance, can be completed remotely.  Information about basic employee benefits, setting up direct deposit, etc., can all distract from the assimilation process of onboarding and can be completed beforehand. If you are going to require your new staff to come into the office for extended periods, make it worthwhile – focus on assimilation, rather than a mountain of paperwork.

Communicate with key staff.  We coordinate our behavior and receive ongoing feedback about the onboarding process through communication.  Remember, onboarding is your new hires’ first real look at how your company operates, and you want to have it together.  If your hires get through your onboarding process feeling like one hand wasn’t talking to the other, they will be less motivated to stick with you in the future.

Make it a dynamic process. – Onboarding is an active process of assimilating new hires into the company’s culture.  The best way to assimilate is to actively engage new employees in the process.  Try not to approach onboarding as something you “provide to your employees” but something “we do together as a team.” It isn’t “us” vs “them” – it’s “all of us together.”

We would love to hear your experiences of onboarding in your previous jobs.  What worked and what didn’t?  Let us know in the comments below and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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 http://www.rethinkbh.com.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  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 "Onboarding Best Practices for your ABA Agency"

  1. Daniel B. Sundberg | January 6, 2017 at 9:55 am | Reply

    Great content, very informative.

  2. This was a great article+. A good one to start off the new year and also very timely for my situation, as I just hired a new therapist and ahve been reinforced by the content as I have done many of the suggested practices. There are a couple I haven’t done but will put into place on Monday. Thank you!

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