Introduction to ESPPs: Benefits and Why Companies Offer Them‍

Casey Fenton

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January 4, 2024

According to a recent study by the National Center for Employee Ownership, companies that offer Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) have seen a remarkable increase in employee productivity and job satisfaction. This revelation has fueled renewed interest in ESPPs, leading to a surge in the number of businesses exploring this avenue to bolster employee retention and corporate success. But what exactly is an ESPP, and why is it an increasingly favored choice among savvy companies?

Understanding Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs)

Essentially, ESPPs are a unique type of benefit that provides employees with the opportunity to invest in their company by purchasing company stock, often at a discount. These plans act as a bridge, transforming employees into shareholders, and thereby instilling a sense of pride and ownership that extends beyond typical financial incentives.

Why is it called an "Employee Stock Purchase Plan"? This terminology arises from the unique function of these plans. They're not just about distributing stock to employees like other equity compensation methods. Instead, they offer employees the chance to actively purchase the stock, frequently at a discounted price. This action involves employees making a conscious decision to invest in their company, often facilitated through straightforward payroll deductions.

Historically, ESPPs were born from the concept of profit-sharing, an old practice where businesses would share a portion of their profits with employees. Over time, companies evolved this into offering a slice of ownership, which not only shared profits through dividends but also offered capital growth as the company increased in value.

The debut of ESPPs on the corporate stage took place around the mid-20th century. However, their popularity gained momentum during the technology boom in the 1970s. High-tech companies were fighting to recruit top-tier talent in a highly competitive market. To differentiate themselves and make their offers more appealing, they began including ESPPs in their compensation packages. This trend spread across industries as companies saw the value in creating a workforce invested in their company's financial performance.

In the past, ESPPs were mostly offered by public companies due to the relative ease of trading their publicly listed shares. However, in recent years, even private companies have started implementing ESPPs, spurred by advancements in secondary markets and stock administration software.

This evolution of ESPPs underscores their adaptability and enduring relevance in the ever-changing landscape of employee compensation. The outlook on these plans will likely continue to evolve, offering innovative ways for companies to attract, retain, and engage their employees.

Two Types of ESPPs

ESPPs can be broken down into two broad categories: qualified and non-qualified plans. Each of these plan types has its own characteristics, advantages, and constraints, reflecting the varying objectives and strategies of different companies.

Qualified ESPPs—often referred to as Section 423 plans due to their regulation under Section 423 of the Internal Revenue Code—are perhaps the most common type of ESPP. These plans come with a set of stringent IRS rules, but in return, they provide favorable tax treatment to participating employees.

Key features of qualified ESPPs include the ability to offer a discount on the purchase price of up to 15%. In addition, there are often "lookback" provisions that allow the purchase price to be set at the lower of the stock price at the beginning or end of the offering period. This means that even if the company's stock price rises significantly during the offering period, employees can still purchase the stock at a lower price, potentially realizing substantial gains.

However, qualified ESPPs also come with restrictions. For instance, employees who earn high salaries or own a significant percentage of the company's stock may be excluded from participating. There are also caps on the value of the stock that employees can purchase under the plan each year.

Non-qualified ESPPs, on the other hand, don't have to adhere to the same rules and restrictions as their qualified counterparts. This provides companies with more flexibility to tailor their plans according to their specific needs and goals.

For example, a non-qualified plan might allow for a higher purchase price discount or have no cap on the value of stock that can be purchased. However, these plans don't provide the same tax advantages as qualified plans. Instead, discounts on non-qualified ESPPs are generally treated as ordinary income for tax purposes.

One vital aspect to note is that regardless of whether a company chooses a qualified or non-qualified plan, ESPPs should always be designed with the employees' interests in mind. Companies can leverage the flexibility of these plans to create an attractive benefit that aligns with their broader compensation strategy and encourages long-term employee engagement and loyalty.

In the end, the choice between a qualified or non-qualified ESPP largely hinges on a balance between the company's objectives, the perceived value to employees, and the associated tax implications. With such an understanding of the intricacies of these different types of ESPPs, companies can make an informed decision that best suits their unique circumstances.

Reasons Why Companies Offer ESPPs

Beyond providing a potentially lucrative financial incentive to your employees, ESPPs can significantly contribute to your company's strategic objectives. So why should your company offer ESPPs?

1. Employee Retention

In a competitive job market, keeping top talent within your organization is paramount. ESPPs can serve as a powerful retention tool. By offering employees the chance to invest in the company at a discounted price, ESPPs create an incentive for employees to stay with your company and reap the benefits of their investment over time.

2. Wealth Accumulation for Employees

ESPPs offer employees a chance to accumulate wealth beyond their regular wages. This is particularly the case in successful companies where the stock price appreciates significantly. When employees see their investment grow, it enhances their financial well-being and job satisfaction, ultimately benefiting your company.

3. Corporate Tax Reduction

ESPPs can bring tax benefits to your company. For instance, the cost associated with the discount given to employees under a qualified ESPP is generally tax-deductible. This deduction can help offset the cost of providing this benefit to employees.

4. Talent Attraction

In your quest to attract high-quality talent, ESPPs can serve as a distinguishing factor that sets your company apart from the competition. The chance to participate in the company's success through an ESPP can make your job offers more appealing to prospective employees.

5. Alignment of Interests

ESPPs can help ensure that the interests of your employees align with those of your company. When employees become shareholders, they become more invested in the company's success, as their financial well-being is directly linked to the company's performance.

6. Fostering Ownership Mindset

By giving employees a stake in the company, ESPPs can instill a sense of ownership. Employees who feel like owners are more likely to go the extra mile, contributing their best efforts toward the company's success.

7. Motivation and Employee Loyalty

ESPPs can serve as a key driver of employee motivation and loyalty. When employees see their investments in the company grow, it validates their efforts and fosters a deeper connection with the company. This sense of belonging and shared success can translate into increased commitment and productivity.

Case Study of Successful Companies Leveraging ESPPs

Case Study #1: Microsoft

Microsoft, one of the world's most valuable companies, is renowned for its innovative ESPP. In fact, this tech giant has one of the most generous ESPPs in the industry, offering a 10% discount on its stock to all eligible employees.

By participating in this plan, Microsoft's employees have had the chance to share in the company's extraordinary growth. Over the years, the company's stock has significantly appreciated, translating to substantial gains for employees participating in the ESPP.

Importantly, Microsoft's ESPP has also served to foster an ownership culture within the company. By directly linking employee wealth to company performance, the plan has incentivized employees to contribute their best efforts toward the company's success.

Case Study #2: Starbucks

Starbucks offers a prime example of how an ESPP can contribute to a company's broader mission and values. Starbucks' "Bean Stock" program allows eligible employees, or "partners" as they are called, to purchase stock at a discount. This aligns with the company's philosophy of creating a "culture of belonging," where everyone is a partner.

The results speak for themselves. Starbucks has consistently ranked highly in employee satisfaction surveys, with its Bean Stock program frequently cited as a key factor. The program has not only provided a financial benefit to employees, but it has also served to foster a sense of ownership and shared success across the company.

Case Study #3: Alphabet (Google)

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has also harnessed the power of an ESPP to drive its success. Alphabet's ESPP allows employees to purchase stock at a substantial discount, providing a significant financial incentive.

Participation in the ESPP has also served to align employee interests with those of the company. By tying employee wealth directly to company performance, Alphabet's ESPP has encouraged employees to remain invested in the company's success.

These case studies highlight how diverse companies leverage ESPPs to their advantage. Through an offer of a significant financial incentive, aligning employee and company interests, and fostering a sense of ownership, these companies have created a motivated and engaged workforce that is committed to driving company success. They serve as powerful examples of how well-executed ESPPs can contribute to both employee well-being and corporate performance.

Should You Get Your Employees ESPPs?

ESPPs represent a powerful tool for companies seeking to attract, retain, and engage top talent. By offering employees the chance to share in the company's success, ESPPs align the interests of your workforce with the growth of your company, fostering a sense of ownership and commitment that can drive remarkable results. However, while ESPPs offer significant advantages, they are but one tool in the broad arsenal of equity compensation. 

As your company evolves, you might find that other equity compensation mechanisms, like Restricted Stock Units (RSUs), could offer a compelling alternative or complement to your ESPP. RSUs, which grant employees company shares over time, can provide a more direct form of equity ownership, fostering long-term commitment and retaining top talent. In the end, the choice between ESPPs, RSUs, or a blend of both will depend on your company's unique circumstances, objectives, and the needs of your employees. Exploring these options with the aid of expert advice can help your company create a robust, flexible, and attractive compensation strategy that motivates your workforce and propels your business to new heights.

For more info about RSU plans that are tailor-made for your company’s needs and goals, book a demo with Upstock today.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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