Open, caring and inclusive is how Ed Guttenplan, managing shareholder and "chief emotional officer" of East Brunswick, N.J-based Wilkin & Guttenplan, described the culture of his firm.

"It starts with trust and honesty," Guttenplan explained. "We need to make sure we are trustworthy and honest. We tell the good and bad news and there are little and big things in what we do so the staff knows that the partners and firm administrator care about them."

It's the little things that firms do that go a long way, and for W&G, it's texting an employee if they are having a special event or vacation to wish them well, or calling a staff person at home when they've called out sick - all acts that could be interpreted as intrusive, but, according to Guttenplan, are not received that way.

"It's not done out of prying, it's out of caring," he said, adding that he and firm administrator Janine Zirrith have been known to pay for employees' drinks or meals when they run into staff unexpectedly out at neighboring establishments. Gift certificates are also given out when someone buys a new home. And when someone works extraordinarily hard on a project, employees and management are encouraged to give out American Express gift certificates worth anywhere from $100 to $500. "We are oriented around rewarding people who achieve and who go above and beyond," Guttenplan said.

With 70 employees, the firm has an even split of men and women on its management team. There are incentives for employees to add business to the firm. Those who recruit new employees receive bonuses ranging from $500 to $5,000 depending on the position, and employees who bring in new clients receive 10 percent of the fees collected for as long as the prospect is a client.

The firm's expertise includes estate and trust services and matrimonial litigation support services, as well as niche markets such as managed health care, professional athletes and condominium associations.

During busy season, employees are rewarded with tokens of appreciation such as movie tickets, a bottle of wine, or gift certificates, to make sure they don't get overloaded with stress or anxiety. On tax season Saturdays, the firm caters lunch, which is generally based on a theme that is carried throughout the entire day, complete with decorations, food, attire, token gifts and games. In the past, these themes have included a pep rally, Chinese New Year, beach and slumber parties, Mardi Gras, and The Sopranos TV show. Accomplishments or successes are also recognized by an e-mail sent out by Guttenplan with the entire partner group copied.

The firm intentionally does not have an employee suggestion box - rather, staff are encouraged to seek out a member of management in person. "The most important thing in my mind is to be an effective listener, to be able to listen to what your employees are saying, listen emphatically, understand where they are coming from, and, with care and concern, respond in a way that is meaningful to them," Guttenplan said. "I can tell you that I can walk by a staff person and look at their face and I can tell if they are troubled."

Coaching is also offered for staff in helping them obtain technical and soft skills. Coaches come from a select group of individuals who have demonstrated excellence in staff development. All staff members are assigned a coach, and assignments are at the firm's discretion. Coaches help staff on a one-on-one basis to craft an individual CPE program, a process that begins with an annual review and then continues with quarterly coaching/lunch sessions. The point of the program is to focus on the employee's strengths to move forward.

For Zirrith, the goal is longevity. "When someone walks through the door, we want them to be a lifer," she said.

- Liz Gold

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