The RSU Compensation Model in Successful Companies

Casey Fenton

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September 6, 2023

So, you've landed a job offer at a thriving company, and as part of your compensation package, they mention something called "RSUs” during the recruitment process. As a newly hired employee, you might be scratching your head, wondering what in the world this acronym stands for and how it affects your financial future.

Fortunately, we are able to give you guidance through this article on RSU as a compensation model in many rising companies. Here, we'll delve into the history, inner workings, and competitive edge of RSUs, aka Restricted Stock Units, and introduce you to the big players who offer this enticing form of equity compensation.

What Exactly is a Restricted Stock Unit (RSU)?

RSU stands for Restricted Stock Unit,  which is a form of equity compensation granted by companies to their employees. Unlike stock options, where you have the option to purchase company stock at a predetermined strike price, RSUs provide you with actual stock units outright. 

However, there's a catch. You don't actually own the shares until they vest, which means you can't sell them immediately. The vesting schedule of restricted stock units RSUs is usually spread out over a specific period, incentivizing employee retention and aligning their interests with the company's long-term success.

How Restricted Stock Units Work as A Modern Company Stock Plan

Now that we know what RSUs are, let's dig deeper into their inner workings. When a company grants you restricted stock units RSUs, they specify the vesting period and the number of shares you'll receive. 

For example, you might be granted 1,000 RSUs with a four-year vesting period, meaning that 250 shares will vest every year over four years. As each vesting date approaches, a portion of the RSUs converts into actual stock shares, which you can keep or sell RSUs at your discretion.

While the concept of stock based compensation has been around for decades, restricted stock units RSUs gained significant prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, particularly within the tech industry. This surge in popularity can be attributed to several key factors that shaped the landscape of employee compensation during that time.

During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, tech companies experienced unprecedented growth and saw their stock prices skyrocket. As a result, traditional forms of compensation, such as salaries and bonuses, seemed insufficient to attract and retain top talent. Tech employees sought alternative forms of compensation that provided a direct stake in the company's success and allowed them to participate in the soaring valuations of their employers.

Restricted stock units RSUs emerged as a compelling solution to address these demands. They offered employees the opportunity to receive actual stock units as part of their compensation package, which would vest over time, thereby creating a sense of ownership and alignment with the company's long-term goals. The allure of restricted stock units (RSUs) lay in the fact that they provided employees with a direct stake in the company stock without requiring them to purchase shares outright or navigate complex stock option plans.

This shift towards RSUs as a preferred equity compensation method was also influenced by regulatory changes. In 2004, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) implemented new accounting rules that required companies to expense the value of stock options granted to employees. This change made stock options less appealing to companies from a financial reporting standpoint, as it resulted in increased expenses on their balance sheets. 

In contrast, restricted stock units RSUs were not subject to the same accounting treatment, making them a more attractive option for companies looking to incentivize and reward their employees.

The success of restricted stock units RSUs in the tech industry quickly spread to other sectors as well. Global corporations recognized the value of offering RSUs as part of their compensation packages to attract and retain top talent. Today, RSUs are not only prevalent in technology companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook but also in industries such as finance, healthcare, and manufacturing.

Restricted Stock Units: The Choice for Global Corporations and Tech Titans

Fast forward to today, and restricted stock units RSUs have become a common feature in the compensation packages of successful companies worldwide. Let's take a look at some of the tech companies and big players from other industries who offer RSUs as part of their equity compensation plans:

1. Apple Inc.

The tech giant provides RSUs to both its tech employees and executives, allowing them to participate in the company's growth and success.

2. Amazon.com

As the largest e-commerce company in the world, Amazon offers RSUs to its employees, enabling them to share in the company's phenomenal capital gains.

3. Google (Alphabet Inc.)

RSUs are a key component of Google's compensation structure, aligning the interests of tech employees and other workers with the company's long-term goals.

4. Facebook

The social media giant grants RSUs to its employees, fostering a sense of ownership and incentivizing them to contribute to the company's success.

5. Microsoft

The tech titan Microsoft is well-known for its generous compensation packages, which often include restricted stock units RSUs. By offering RSUs as part of their equity compensation, Microsoft aligns the interests of its tech employees with the company shares’ performance and growth.

6. Johnson & Johnson

As a leading pharmaceutical and consumer goods company, Johnson & Johnson recognizes the value of RSUs in attracting and retaining top talent. RSUs provide employees with a direct stake in the company stock, allowing them to benefit from capital gains and share price appreciation.

7. ExxonMobil

The energy giant ExxonMobil incorporates RSUs into its comprehensive compensation plan to motivate and reward its employees. RSUs give employees the opportunity to participate in the company's success, as the vested RSUs can be converted into actual shares of ExxonMobil's stock.

8. Procter & Gamble

Procter & Gamble, a global corporation in the consumer goods industry, includes RSUs as part of its stock compensation strategy. RSUs enable employees to share in the company stock gains, providing a sense of ownership and alignment with shareholder value.

9. General Electric

General Electric (GE), a conglomerate operating across multiple industries, utilizes RSUs to attract and retain talented individuals. By granting RSUs to employees, GE creates a link between their compensation and the company stock performance, fostering long-term commitment and alignment with the company's objectives.

10. Walmart

The retail giant Walmart understands the value of RSUs in motivating and retaining its employees. RSUs allow Walmart employees to directly participate in the company stock price appreciation and benefit from the potential long-term gains.

11. Coca-Cola

As a renowned beverage company, Coca-Cola includes RSUs in its compensation packages to incentivize its employees. RSUs provide employees with the opportunity to share in the company stock gains and align their interests with the overall success of Coca-Cola.

12. JPMorgan Chase

JPMorgan Chase, a prominent banking and financial services corporation, incorporates RSUs as part of its stock compensation plan. RSUs serve as a valuable tool to attract and retain talented individuals in the competitive finance industry, offering them the potential for capital gains and stock market price returns.

13. Nike

The athletic apparel and footwear company Nike grants RSUs to its employees, allowing them to become shareholders and benefit from the company stock price appreciation. RSUs serve as a powerful incentive to foster a sense of ownership and align employees' interests with the company's performance.

14. Walt Disney Company 

The entertainment conglomerate Walt Disney Company offers RSUs as part of its comprehensive compensation package. By providing RSUs, Disney encourages employees to contribute to the company's long-term success and share in the rewards of its stock market gains.

These examples showcase how global corporations across different industries recognize the value of restricted stock units RSUs as a crucial component of their compensation packages. RSUs align the interests of employees with the company stock performance, fostering loyalty, and motivating employees to contribute to long-term success.

Restricted Stock Units vs. Other Equity Compensation Plans

Now, you might be wondering how restricted stock units RSUs stack up against other forms of equity compensation, such as stock options. Let's explore the unique advantages that RSUs bring to the table:

Tax Advantage

One significant advantage of restricted stock units RSUs is their tax treatment. When your RSUs vest, they are considered ordinary income and subject to federal income tax, Medicare tax, and Social Security tax withholding. 

However, any future gains from selling the shares will be taxed as capital gains. This is in contrast to stock options, where the difference between the strike price and the stock price at exercise is subject to ordinary income tax and you will also owe capital gains tax.

Simplicity

Restricted stock units RSUs are straightforward to understand and manage. Unlike stock options, where you need to navigate strike price, exercise date, and potential tax implications, RSUs offer a simpler path. Once your RSUs vest, you receive actual shares, which you can choose to hold or sell without worrying about expiration dates or exercise prices.

Long-Term Alignment

The vesting schedule of restricted stock units RSUs encourages long-term thinking and aligns your interests with the company's success. As you accumulate vested RSUs over time, you become more invested in the organization's performance, fostering a sense of loyalty and dedication.

Market Gains

Since restricted stock units (RSUs) provide you with actual stock shares, you stand to benefit from any increase in the company's stock price. If the stock price rises, the value of your vested RSUs increases accordingly, allowing you to reap the rewards of the market's upward trajectory.

Sample RSU Compensation Model and Best Practices

To give you a taste of how restricted stock unit (RSU) equity plans work, let's walk through a sample model:

Company XYZ grants you 1,000 RSUs with a four-year vesting schedule and a one-year cliff. This means that after the first year of employment, 250 RSUs will vest, and from then on, an additional 250 RSUs will vest every year until the end of the fourth year. Once your RSUs vest, they convert into actual shares, which you can hold or sell.

Now, when it comes to understanding restricted stock units (RSUs) and maximizing their benefits, there are several best practices and considerations to keep in mind. If you're a tech employee or a remote worker delving into the world of RSUs, these guidelines can help you make informed decisions and optimize your financial outcomes:

1. Grant Date and Vesting Schedule

RSUs are typically granted on a specific date, known as the grant date. Understanding this date is crucial, as it marks the starting point for your vesting period—the timeframe in which your RSUs gradually become available to you. It's important to be aware of the vesting schedule, which outlines how and when your RSUs will vest over time.

2. Fair Market Value and Actual Market Value

RSUs are valued based on the fair market value (FMV) of the company's stock on the grant date. This FMV determines the number of RSUs you receive. As your RSUs vest, you'll be entitled to the actual market value of the vested shares. It's essential to keep track of these values for tax purposes and to gauge the growth of your investment.

3. Withholding Taxes

RSUs are subject to various tax implications. When RSUs vest, they are typically considered taxable income. It's essential to understand the tax obligations associated with RSUs, such as paying ordinary income taxes on the value of the vested RSUs. Additionally, when you sell the vested shares, you may be liable for capital gains taxes. Consulting with a financial planner or tax advisor can help you navigate the complexities of paying taxes on RSUs effectively.

4. Capital Gains and Holding Periods

The sale of RSU shares may result in capital gains or losses. Holding RSU shares for an extended period, typically more than one year, may qualify for long term capital gains tax treatment. This could result in a lower tax rate compared to short term capital gains, which are typically taxed at ordinary income tax rates. Being aware of the potential tax advantages of holding RSU shares long-term can help you optimize your tax strategy.

5. Diversification and Investment Portfolio

RSUs can represent a significant portion of your investment portfolio, often tied to your employer's equity. It's crucial to consider diversification by not relying solely on RSUs or holding just one stock. Diversifying your investments across various asset classes and sectors can help mitigate risks and provide a more balanced portfolio.

6. Insider Trading and Compliance

As an RSU holder, it's important to understand and comply with any insider trading policies or blackout periods imposed by your company. Engaging in insider trading, which involves trading stocks based on non-public information, is strictly prohibited and can lead to legal consequences. Stay informed and adhere to your company's guidelines and avoid insider trading to prevent any inadvertent violations.

7. Sell Stock at the Right Time

Once your RSUs vest and the shares are delivered, you have the option to hold or sell the stock. Timing the sale of your RSU shares can have tax implications. Selling at a higher market price may result in greater capital gains, while selling at a discounted price may lead to losses. Carefully evaluate your financial goals, tax considerations, and the market conditions before deciding when to sell your RSU shares.

8. Private Companies and Liquidity

If you hold RSUs in a private company, the process of realizing their value may differ compared to public companies. Private company RSUs may have restrictions on selling the shares due to limited liquidity. Understanding the rules and potential paths to liquidity in private companies is crucial for planning your financial strategy.

Unleashing the Power of RSUs

Indeed, restricted stock units (RSUs) have become a cornerstone of equity compensation in successful companies worldwide. By offering employees a stake in the company's stock, RSUs create a sense of ownership, align interests, and incentivize long-term commitment. Their tax advantages, simplicity, and potential for capital gains make RSUs an attractive option for employees seeking to build wealth and financial security.

As you embark on your journey with RSUs, remember to understand the vesting schedule, seek professional advice from a financial advisor, diversify your investments, and plan for taxes. By mastering the intricacies of RSUs, you can unlock their full potential and pave the way to a prosperous financial future. 

Alternatively, your company may consider employing a third-party equity compensation management platform that handles RSU plans from employee onboarding down to vesting. Curious how Upstock does this? Send us a message for more personalized information!

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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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