Great employee engagement starts as soon as the hire is made

Achievers uses a buddy system to onboard new hires and quickly acclimate them to the company culture

Boss welcoming in a new employee

(Illustration by Miguel Montaner)

This is one in a series of profiles of the PROFIT 500—Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. For more, go to

Achievers discovered a problem around the time it hit 40 employees. A recent hire suddenly quit, and during an exit interview confessed that the company, which helps clients manage employee rewards and recognition programs, was hard to break into socially. The culture was well-established and the employees were tightly knit, an intimidating prospect for newcomers trying to find their place. The news was surprising to management, but the company soon developed a fix. Achievers introduced a buddy system, pairing each new hire with an experienced employee who could serve as a guide.

The mentor plan is just one component of an extensive onboarding process at Achievers, but it illustrates the overarching principle behind how the company incorporates new employees. “The number one thing is to remember how daunting the first day is at a new job,” says David Brennan, the company’s general manager. “As long as we remember that, it’s just a matter of creating processes and environments that make them feel welcome.”

Onboarding is an important process that is too often ignored. Even getting the little things wrong—neglecting to set up an email account, for example—will create a poor first impression that’s hard to shake. More seriously, employees will flounder without a proper training and acclimatization program. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that the first 90 days on the job are crucial. An employee who isn’t trained, lacks support or feels socially isolated isn’t likely to stick around. The faster a new hire is integrated, however, the sooner that employee can start contributing.

At Achievers, which was recently acquired by California-based Blackhawk Network,  onboarding starts well before the first day. Within 24 hours of someone accepting a job offer, Achievers sends a gift (these days, it’s a fruit basket) to make the employee feel welcome and to open up a dialogue. Oftentimes, the employee will reach out to say thanks; if not, Achievers gets in touch to start taking care of the onboarding paperwork. “There’s nothing worse than when you’re excited on your first day and someone puts you in a boardroom to fill out paperwork,” Brennan says.

The next step is to get set up with a buddy. Achievers typically selects the most outgoing and social of its more than 230 employees for the role, and matches them to the hire as much as possible. If the new person has a young family, the company selects a buddy with young kids, too. The buddy takes the new recruit for lunch and serves as a kind of guidance counsellor from then on, so the person always knows who to turn to with questions.

New hires have the option to shadow workers in other departments, too. Those who opt in get exposure to other departments and a better understanding of Achievers—and they also might uncover insights that benefit the company. A few years ago, a software developer shadowing the member experience team (the name Achievers gives to its customer support) was puzzled by how many people phoned in with requests to retrieve or renew their passwords. The developer later discovered that the customer support phone number was more prominently displayed on the password-renewal page than the link for users to renew passwords themselves. A simple redesign reduced the number of calls. “New hires come in with a blank slate, and we tend to get more creativity as a result of them shadowing someone” Brennan says.

The centrepiece of the onboarding process, though, might be the Achievers Academy. The multi-day event, held once per quarter, allows senior leaders and department heads to share insights and successes with recent employees in town hall–style meetings. A number of smaller events occur around the same time, mostly designed to let new hires and leadership get to know one another. The company even hosts leader “speed dating” events, where new employees get two minutes to chat with a senior executive. Brennan, who’s participated many times, has been asked everything from why he joined Achievers to whether he has a dog. The practice might seem frivolous, but Brennan says it helps build connections. He’ll use what he learned about people to make small talk when he sees them around the office later. “It’s these types of casual interactions that promote our culture,” he says.

At the end of the onboarding process, every employee is ushered into a meeting with a manager and given 10 reasons they shouldn’t work at Achievers—for example, because the company promotes people based on merit and not tenure or overtime is sometimes required. They’re presented with an iPad, which the company calls a “departing” gift, and given the option to take it and leave the company, or stay on. It’s a concept Achievers borrowed from Zappos, and it serves as a test of commitment.

After 30, 60 and 90 days with the company, employees are required to fill out a survey indicating how they feel about the job. The responses give managers a sense of how well the employee is integrating and allows them to intervene if there are problems. The final 90-day survey is reviewed by not only the employee’s direct manager but also the department head and Brennan himself. If the score is high and trending upward from the 30-day survey, the employee is considered fully integrated. If not, the manager has to investigate and learn how to improve the employee’s well-being.

The process might seem long and involved, but Brennan says it’s worth it. How much care a company puts into onboarding is also revealing. “It speaks to how much you care about your employees,” he says.