Understanding Different Types of Equity Compensation: Stock Options, ESPP, RSU, and ISO

Learn about various equity compensation options!

5/24/20232 min read

In today's competitive job market, companies often use equity compensation as an attractive component of employee compensation packages. Equity compensation aligns the interests of employees with those of the company and can provide significant financial benefits. This article aims to explore and explain four commonly used forms of equity compensation: stock options, Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP), Restricted Stock Units (RSU), and Incentive Stock Options (ISO).

  • Stock Options: Stock options are contracts that give employees the right to purchase company stock at a predetermined price (known as the strike or exercise price) within a specified period. There are two types of stock options: non-qualified stock options (NSOs) and incentive stock options (ISOs). NSOs are more common and subject to ordinary income tax on the difference between the exercise price and the fair market value at the time of exercise. ISOs provide potential tax advantages if certain conditions are met, such as holding the stock for a specified period.

  • Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP): ESPPs enable employees to purchase company stock at a discounted price through payroll deductions. These plans typically offer a purchase period, often six months, during which employees accumulate funds. At the end of the period, the accumulated funds are used to purchase company stock at a discount (usually up to 15% of the fair market value). ESPPs provide a means for employees to become shareholders and potentially profit from stock price appreciation.

  • Restricted Stock Units (RSU): RSUs represent a promise by the employer to grant employees a specific number of shares after a vesting period. Unlike stock options, RSUs do not require employees to purchase the shares. Once the vesting period is complete, the shares are transferred to the employee as ordinary income and are subject to income tax. RSUs provide employees with an ownership stake in the company and benefit from any appreciation in stock value.

  • Incentive Stock Options (ISO): ISOs are a specific type of stock option granted to employees, intended to provide tax advantages. To qualify for these advantages, ISOs must meet certain conditions defined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If the requirements are met, employees can potentially receive capital gains tax treatment on the difference between the exercise price and the sale price. ISOs often have specific holding periods and other restrictions.

Equity compensation, such as stock options, ESPPs, RSUs, and ISOs, plays a crucial role in attracting and retaining talented employees. Each type of equity compensation offers its own benefits and tax implications. Stock options provide the opportunity to purchase company stock at a predetermined price, ESPPs allow for discounted stock purchases, RSUs grant ownership stakes, and ISOs offer potential tax advantages.

Before accepting any equity compensation, it is important for employees to understand the terms and conditions associated with each type, including vesting schedules, tax implications, and any restrictions on selling or transferring shares. Consulting with a financial advisor or tax professional can help employees make informed decisions about their equity compensation and maximize its benefits.