Understanding Equity Compensation: A Comprehensive Guide

By Zack Gutches, CFP®, CPA | Apr 16, 2024 |

Equity compensation is a form of remuneration provided by businesses to their employees. It involves the distribution of company shares or other ownership interests as a part of an employee’s overall compensation package. Startups and high-growth companies, such as Amazon, commonly use this type of compensation to attract and retain top talent, encouraging employees to think and act like owners and driving innovation, productivity, and loyalty. 

Types of equity compensation

Equity compensation is a valuable tool that many companies use to attract and retain top talent. There are several types of equity compensation that employers can offer to their employees, including stock options, restricted stock units (RSUs), and employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs). 

Stock options give employees the right to purchase company stock at a specific price, known as the exercise price or strike price. This allows employees to benefit from any stock value increase over time. Stock options typically have a vesting period, meaning that employees must remain with the company for a certain period before they can exercise their options. 

Restricted stock units (RSUs) are another form of equity compensation. With RSUs, employees are granted units of company stock that will translate into actual ownership of those shares as an employee vests in those shares at set intervals over time. Unlike stock options, employees do not need to purchase the stock; they are granted the shares outright and receive them on the various vest dates in the grant schedule.

RSUs provide employees with a direct ownership stake in the company and allow them to benefit from any increase in the stock’s value. RSU’s are taxed like a cash-bonus in that the entire gross value of your RSU is taxed in the calendar year it vests, regardless of whether you sold it or not. Your employer will automatically sell a portion of your RSU’s to cover tax withholding, but for employees with high compensation, the withholding from the employer is often not enough to cover the entire tax liability generated by the RSU’s vesting. 

Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs) allow employees to purchase company stock at a discounted price. Through an ESPP, employees can contribute a portion of their salary to buy company stock, usually at a discount of up to 15% (potentially more if a lookback provision is in place). ESPPs typically have a set enrollment period, during which employees can elect to participate. This type of equity compensation allows employees to take advantage of discounts on stock purchase, potential stock price appreciation and can also yield favorable tax benefits. 

How does it work

Granting equity to employees involves giving them shares or stock options as part of their compensation package. This can be done during the hiring process or as a reward for performance.  

Vesting schedules and cliff periods play a crucial role in equity compensation. Vesting refers to the process by which an employee gains rights over their granted equity. Typically, vesting occurs over several years, incentivizing employees to stay with the company. A cliff period is a specific time frame before any equity vests, and it serves as a way to ensure employee commitment and retention. 

Exercising stock options and selling shares is the final step in equity compensation. There are two different kinds of stock options – Incentive stock options (“ISO’s) and Non-Qualified stock options (“NSO’s). Exercising ISO’s and NSO’s have differing tax implications, so it’s important to understand the potential tax ramifications before exercising your stock options.  

There is also the ability in certain instances to exercise (i.e. choose to purchase) your stock options before they’ve vested, which is referred to as an “Early Exercise”. This can be a potentially enticing tax strategy, dependent on factors such as available liquid capital to purchase the shares, exercise price relative to the fair-market-value of the stock, type of stock option (ISO vs NSO), and the makeup and quantity of expected compensation/income from other sources for that calendar year.

If you do early exercise stock options and leave your employer prior to becoming vested in 100% of the stock options you exercised, your employer will have the option to repurchase any exercised-but-unvested shares at the price you paid for the shares. This represents a potential ‘lost-opportunity cost’ on your capital, and is something that should be discussed in depth with a qualified financial planner + tax professional, in addition to the tax consequences of early exercising shares. 

Advantages of equity compensation

Equity compensation can provide numerous advantages for both employees and companies. Key benefits include: 

Alignment of employee and company interests: By offering employees a stake in the company’s ownership, they become more invested in its success. This alignment often leads to increased motivation, productivity, and loyalty. 

Potential for wealth accumulation: As the company grows and succeeds, the value of the equity grants or stock options can increase significantly. This can be particularly advantageous for employees who join a company in its early stages and witness its growth. 

Tax advantages of certain equity compensation plans: Certain equity compensation plans, such as stock options or ESPPs offer tax advantages for employees.  


Amazon corporate benefits Brighton Jones

READ: Amazon Employees: Tax Implications of Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)


Considerations for implementing equity compensation

Clearly define the criteria for employees to be eligible for equity compensation and establish a fair and transparent process for allocating equity. This can be based on job level, performance, or organizational tenure. 

Ensuring fair and transparent equity distribution is another key factor. Companies should establish guidelines and policies that prevent biases or favoritism in equity distribution. This includes clear documentation and communication channels to inform employees about the process and their potential eligibility.  

Lastly, legal and regulatory compliance is essential. Equity compensation plans are subject to various laws and regulations, including tax and securities regulations. It’s crucial to consult legal professionals to ensure that the plan is structured in compliance with these regulations, reducing any potential risks or liabilities. 

Equity compensation can be a valuable tool for attracting and retaining top talent, but employees often overlook or misunderstand its true value. At Brighton Jones, we believe in educating clients about equity compensation to ensure they fully understand the benefits and potential risks. 

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