Equity Compensation: Unlocking the Benefits for Employees


In today’s competitive job market, attracting and retaining top talent is a priority for companies of all sizes. For most early startups, the struggle is having the cash flow to grow the business.

Beyond salary and traditional benefits, employers are increasingly turning to equity compensation as a powerful tool to incentivize employees and align their interests with the company’s success.

Understanding equity compensation

Equity compensation offers employees the opportunity to share in the growth and value of the company through various types of equity-based awards. Since every individual has a “level of interest” to grow the business, employees are more likely to work hard to grow the business.

There are a total of 5 different equity compensation typically used by startups. They are as follows:


Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) and Non-Qualified Stock Options (NSOs) provide employees with the right to purchase company shares at a predetermined price, known as the exercise price or strike price. ISOs are subject to specific tax advantages and must adhere to certain requirements outlined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

NSOs, on the other hand, do not qualify for the same tax benefits and offer more flexibility to employers. Both types of stock options usually have an expiration date, after which the options become worthless if not exercised.

Vesting schedules play a crucial role in equity compensation plans. A vesting schedule determines when employees have ownership rights to the shares or options granted to them. This schedule is typically structured over a specific period of time, known as the vesting period, during which employees gradually gain ownership of the equity awards.

Vesting can be time-based, performance-based, or a combination of both. Time-based vesting typically requires employees to remain with the company for a specified period before gaining full ownership rights. Performance-based vesting, on the other hand, depends on achieving predetermined goals or milestones.

Stock Units

Stock Units, also known as Restricted Stock Units (RSUs), are another form of equity compensation. RSUs represent a promise to deliver company shares to employees at a predetermined price, usually at the grant date.

Unlike stock options, RSUs do not require an exercise price and are typically subject to a vesting schedule, which outlines the period over which the units become eligible for conversion into company shares. Once RSUs vest, employees receive the underlying shares.

When it comes to stock options, the exercise price is the predetermined price at which employees can purchase the company’s stock. This price is typically set at or above the fair market value at the time of the grant. The fair market value represents the price at which the stock would be sold on the open market. The difference between the exercise price and the fair market value at the time of exercise determines the potential gain for the employee.


Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) are a popular form of equity compensation that allows employees to purchase company shares at a discounted price. ESPPs often have a specified purchase period during which employees can buy shares, usually at a discount of up to 15% of the fair market value.

The discount, when combined with potential stock price appreciation, can offer substantial benefits to employees. Since employees that own shares of a company have a direct output and contributions to share price increase, they are more likely to work harder for the company.

Equity compensation programs are not limited to public companies. Private companies can also offer equity compensation to employees, although the mechanisms for liquidity and realizing the value of the equity may differ. In private companies, liquidity events such as an acquisition or initial public offering (IPO) can provide employees with opportunities to convert their equity awards into cash or company shares.

Cash Deferred Bonus Plans

Phantom Stock and Performance Shares are two additional forms of equity compensation that are commonly used.

Phantom stock provides employees with a cash payment equal to the value of a specified number of shares of the company’s stock. Performance shares, on the other hand, grant employees a certain number of shares based on achieving specific performance targets or the company’s overall performance.

Performance Shares

Performance shares are a type of equity compensation that companies give to employees based on how well they meet specific goals.

Employees receive a promise of company shares if they achieve the targets set by the company. The targets can be related to financial performance or individual/team goals. Once the performance period ends and the targets are evaluated, employees are granted shares. They don’t have to pay anything upfront for the shares.

After receiving the shares, employees can benefit from any increase in the stock price and may have voting rights. The shares typically have a vesting period during which employees must remain employed to receive the full benefits. Performance shares motivate employees to work hard and contribute to the company’s success.

Why Employee should Opt for equity compensation

The benefits of equity compensation extend beyond potential financial gains. By offering employees an ownership stake in the company, equity compensation programs create a sense of shared purpose and motivate employees to contribute to the company’s success. Additionally, equity compensation can help attract and retain top talent by providing an additional layer of long-term incentives.

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What to consider before Signing the Equity Compensation?

Before participating in an equity compensation program, it is important for employees to consider various factors and seek professional advice. Financial advisors and tax advisors can help individuals navigate the complexities of equity compensation and understand the potential tax implications. Legal advice may also be necessary to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations.

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Equity compensation plans are often established and overseen by the company’s board of directors. These plans aim to align the interests of employees with those of shareholders and the overall success of the company. The board determines the types of equity compensation offered, the number of shares allocated, and the terms and conditions of the awards.

In conclusion, equity compensation is a valuable tool for companies to attract and retain talent while aligning employee interests with the success of the organization. Through employee stock purchase plans, stock units, incentive stock options, and other forms of equity compensation, employees have the opportunity to share in the growth and value of the company. However, it is crucial for employees to fully understand the specific terms and conditions of their equity awards and seek professional advice to make informed decisions based on their specific situation. With proper guidance, equity compensation can be a win-win for both employees and employers, fostering a culture of ownership and incentivizing long-term commitment to the company’s success.

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