Pay-nful Negotiations:  5 Tips For ABA Businesses To Make Salary Negotiations Less Aversive

by | May 19, 2021

“Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it –Publilius Syrus, 1st century BC”.

In applied behavior analysis (ABA), determining what others are willing to pay employees can be tricky.  Consider two companies, both considering the same potential employee.  This employee is highly skilled, but works with only one population.

The first company (like the majority of ABA companies) may not consider that employee’s skill set to be highly valued and may not be willing to pay that employee very much.  However, the second company doesn’t have any employees with experience working with that one population. That makes the potential hire’s skill set extremely valuable and makes company two more willing to pay a higher salary.

Ultimately, in ABA, there’s more work than workers, meaning your employees are in high demand and low supply. That makes them and the work they do extremely valuable to the success of your mission.

In many ABA companies, winning the recruiting game means home-growing employees  (i.e., they begin as non-credentialed or Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) and work toward becoming BCBAs).  Once BCBAs reach this crucial milestone, they’ll most likely expect a pay increase commensurate with their new credential.

What does that all mean?  It’s time for you to negotiate a new salary with your employee.

This process usually doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Employees will speak with coworkers and colleagues at other companies.  And that social arena can present unique challenges for you during negotiations.  Here are 5 tips for making that process as smooth as possible:

  1. Create a Safe Environment
    • Salary negotiating isn’t a common skill taught in behavior analysis (BA) graduate programs, often leaving employees ill-prepared for negotiating. They may even make the process averse for both you as the business owner and themselves.
    • Tip:  Get ahead of this process by reaching out before employees ask about a pay bump.  Explain how the negotiating process will work.  Know when they’re going to take the exam?  Reach out well before that.  Begin talking to them about the promotion and salary structure at your company.  Explain that, once they’re ready (i.e., they’ve passed the test), you can sit down again to discuss their future.  Creating ground rules for negotiating and working on earning their trust early can make the process much easier.
    • Remember:  This entire process is a learning experience for employees—one that can be reinforcing or aversive, depending on your behavior.
  1. Establish Trust
    • Trust is key in any negotiation—and any relationship—and it’s no different within ABA companies.
    • Tip:  Before employees get new credentialing, spend time establishing trust.  Remember trust, behaviorally speaking, is the congruence between verbal and nonverbal behavior.  Do what you say you’re going to do.  Then do it consistently.
    • Remember:  Trust will be crucial during negotiations.
  1. Encourage Employees to Test the Market
    • Figuring out how much other ABA companies pay staff is difficult.  ABA business owners usually don’t discuss that information amongst themselves.  However, employees share that information with each other (and their colleagues), regularly putting ABA business owners at a disadvantage.
    • Tip #1:  Allow employees to do the work for you.  Sit them down in a preliminary meeting to propose they explore options with other companies.  Communicate their value within your organization, but stress that you desire open and transparent negotiations.  This will help you win trust points later.
    • Tip #2:  Ask them to bring back to you any offers they’re considering, and tell them you’re more than happy to discuss the offers.  This is important—employees will see firsthand their value within the open market and understand their worth.  This also helps establish more trust and begins the negotiation process with a positive note.
    • Remember:  Instead of calling neighboring ABA agencies pretending to be an interested applicant and asking how much they pay, delegate this responsibility to employees in an ethical manner. It just might help you retain a valued member of your team.
  1. Propose Something Positive & Competitive
    • The ABA market is a lot busier now than in the past. With ABA agencies on almost every block, odds are good that someone’s going to offer more money than your company can—which could present a problem for retaining top talent.
    • Tip:  If you cannot match the best offer, discuss with employees what other benefits are important to them.  Focus on positive aspects of your company, and avoid discussing negatives about the competing company.  Speaking badly about other companies often says more about your company culture than it does about companies you’re criticizing.  It may even drive away the person you’re trying to keep.  Whatever you offer, ensure it’s competitive—a too-low offer can be insulting.
    • Remember:  Reinforcers are different for everyone, and not everyone prioritizes money over workplace wellness.  Also, the response effort in leaving your company (learning a new system, leaving friends, etc.) is often high for any employee. Allowing staff to test the market isn’t always a scary proposition if you consider the effort involved in leaving.
  1. Don’t Overpay
    • Overpaying staff to solve a temporary retention problem can have deleterious effects on the future health of ABA agencies.  It also often creates more problems than it solves.
    • Tip:  Focus on quality-volume.  Creating a strong middle class of employees at your ABA agency will help build strong company culture—and increase employee satisfaction and, ultimately, retention.
    • Remember:  People talk.  If you overpay one person to solve a problem right now, you’re just creating more future problems for yourself. Their coworkers could become resentful and make salary demands, or just send in letters of resignation.

And If the Process Breaks Down… Wish the Employee Well

  • One of the most aversive words to ABA business owners is the term “resignation.” It’s a pain that runs deep in your bones.  Business owners feel betrayed, disappointed, and hurt.  And unfortunately, this aversive stimulus can evoke immature and irrational behavior you may end up regretting.
  • Tip: Before meeting with employees who have just accepted another offer, take a deep breath, invite them in, and then, wish them well.  It may not seem like it at the moment, but this helps build company culture and maintain relationships for the future.  Remember, employees talk to each other, a lot.  And when they discuss how their meeting with you went, the future of your company culture will hang in the balance.
  • Remember: They may take a higher offer somewhere else and have buyer’s remorse when the new company doesn’t live up to the promises made.  This is when your relationship and the trust you’ve built will help to possibly bring someone back to your company.

The takeaway? Negotiating doesn’t have to be an aversive task for either party.  It can actually help to develop and maintain relationships between you and your team—relationships that will last a long time.

About the Author

Adam Ventura draws upon more than 15 years of behavior analysis expertise to help students, professionals and businesses adopt strategies that streamline efficiencies, strengthen relationships and improve quality of life in personal and professional settings.