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  • Nick Burgess

Equity Based Compensation Explained

The following article is for entertainment and educational purposes only, and should not be considered financial advice. Please contact a licensed financial professional for individualized advice. Some links below may be affiliate links that generate a small commission for the site at no cost to you.


Equity-based compensation is a popular form of compensation provided by companies to employees, contractors, or advisors, where the individual receives an ownership stake in the company in the form of company shares or stock-based rewards.

The main objective of equity-based compensation is to align the interests of employees with the company's shareholders, fostering a culture of long-term growth and success. This type of compensation is particularly attractive to new talent and key employees, as it offers the potential for substantial financial rewards in the long run.

There are various types of equity compensation, such as stock units, stock appreciation rights, employee stock purchase plans, incentive stock options, and restricted stock. Different types of equity compensation plans are suitable for specific situations, so let's explore each of them in more detail.

  1. Stock Units (RSUs): RSU plans provide employees with the right to receive a specified number of shares of company stock after meeting certain vesting conditions, such as a predetermined period of time or performance milestones. Upon vesting, the fair market value of the stock units is reported as ordinary income on the employee's income statement. The tax treatment of RSUs is determined by the internal revenue code, with employees paying taxes at ordinary income rates.

  2. Stock Appreciation Rights (SARs): SARs give employees the right to receive a cash payment or shares equivalent to the appreciation of the company's stock from the grant date to the exercise date. The amount of cash or shares received depends on the difference between the share price at the time of grant and the share price at the exercise date. SARs are considered a type of nonqualified stock options, so they are taxed as ordinary income when exercised.

  3. Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs): ESPPs allow employees to purchase company shares at a discounted price, typically through payroll deductions. Employees benefit from the difference between the discounted price and the fair market value of the shares at the time of purchase. ESPPs can be structured as either qualified or nonqualified stock options, with different tax consequences depending on the plan's structure.

  4. Incentive Stock Options (ISOs): ISOs are a type of equity compensation offered exclusively to employees, providing them the option to purchase company shares at a predetermined price, also known as the strike price or exercise price. ISOs are typically granted with a vesting schedule, which requires employees to complete a certain amount of time or meet performance targets before they can exercise their options. ISOs have favorable tax treatment under the internal revenue code, allowing employees to potentially pay long-term capital gains tax instead of ordinary income tax on the profit, provided specific conditions are met.

  5. Non-Qualified Stock Options (NQSOs): NQSOs are similar to ISOs, but they do not have the same tax advantages. NQSOs can be granted to employees, independent contractors, or non-employee directors. The taxable income, known as the compensation income, is recognized when the option is exercised, and the difference between the fair market value at the exercise date and the exercise price is taxed as ordinary income.

  6. Restricted Stock: Restricted stock is another type of equity compensation, where employees receive company shares subject to a vesting period and a substantial risk of forfeiture if they leave the company before the vesting period is complete. The fair market value of restricted stock is taxed as ordinary income when it vests, minus any amount paid by the employee for the stock.

Additional Types of Equity Compensation:

  1. Phantom Stock Plans: Phantom stock plans resemble RSUs but differ in the way they are settled. Under a phantom arrangement, employees receive a cash payment equivalent to the value of company shares at a later date, based on the share price appreciation. The cash payment is taxed as ordinary income, and there is no actual stock transfer. Phantom stock plans can be useful for companies that want to reward employees without diluting their ownership stake or issuing new shares.

  2. Performance Shares: Performance shares are a type of equity compensation tied to the achievement of specific performance milestones, such as company revenue, earnings per share, or stock price targets. The number of shares awarded is determined by the level of performance achieved. These awards are designed to motivate employees to work toward the company's strategic objectives and can be settled in cash, stock, or a combination of both. Performance shares are typically taxed as ordinary income when the performance conditions are met and the shares are granted.

  3. Profits Interest: Profits interest is a type of equity compensation primarily used by partnerships and limited liability companies (LLCs) to provide key employees, advisors, or independent contractors with an ownership stake in the company without requiring them to invest upfront capital. A profits interest grants the recipient the right to a share of the company's future profits without providing any interest in the company's existing capital or assets. Tax treatment of profits interests can be complex, and it is essential to consult with a tax professional or seek investment advice before implementing this type of equity compensation.

When it comes to selecting the appropriate type of equity compensation for your organization, several factors need to be considered, such as the company's size, industry, and stage of growth, as well as the employment status of the grantee-employee or service provider. The board of directors typically plays a significant role in determining the company's equity-based compensation plans and approving grants for specific employees or service providers.

Equity-based compensation arrangements can be an effective tool to attract and retain top talent, incentivize strong performance, and align the interests of employees with those of shareholders. However, understanding the tax consequences, vesting conditions, and potential impact on cash flow is crucial for both companies and recipients of equity compensation.

It is essential to consult with professionals experienced in equity compensation, such as advisory services or legal counsel, to navigate the complexities of share-based payments and ensure compliance with regulations, such as those set forth by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for public companies.


In conclusion, equity-based compensation is a powerful and versatile method of rewarding employees, contractors, and advisors by providing them with an ownership stake in the company. The various types of equity compensation, including stock units, stock appreciation rights, employee stock purchase plans, incentive stock options, non-qualified stock options, restricted stock, and additional types such as phantom stock plans, performance shares, and profits interests, offer companies flexibility in structuring their employee equity programs.

Understanding the differences between these plans and their tax implications is essential for companies and recipients alike to maximize the benefits and minimize potential pitfalls associated with equity-based compensation.


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