RSUs During Market Volatility: A Comprehensive Guide for Startups and Companies‍

Casey Fenton

|

November 15, 2023

In a market climate where cryptocurrency is giving traditional stocks a run for their money and IPOs are making headlines almost every week, you might be wondering how this level of volatility affects your company's most valuable asset—your employees. More specifically, how do these seismic shifts in market trends impact your Restricted Stock Units (RSUs), a crucial part of your compensation package? Read on to find out how you can optimize RSU offerings in these volatile times, keeping your employees both motivated and financially secure.

RSU in Public Companies

In public companies, RSUs are directly tied to publicly traded stocks, making them susceptible to market trends and volatility. While RSUs offer the double advantage of not just being a compensation tool but also a mechanism for aligning your employees' goals with those of the shareholders, there are nuanced factors to consider:

1. Fluctuating Perceived Value

The value of RSUs in public companies isn’t just about numbers on a screen; it's also about perception. When market conditions are turbulent, and your stock price goes on a rollercoaster ride, so does employee sentiment. A sudden dip in stock prices can adversely impact morale, as employees could perceive it as a devaluation of their hard work.

What You Can Do:

  • Buffer Periods: Implement 'buffer periods' after significant corporate events, such as quarterly earnings announcements, before RSUs can be sold. This allows time for the market to absorb the news and potentially stabilize, preventing a rush to sell and a further plummet in share price.

  • Active Monitoring and Management: Utilize automated platforms that can track stock performance and notify your HR team when significant fluctuations occur. This way, you can address employee concerns proactively.

2. Long-term vs Short-term

The timeline of RSUs can be both an asset and a challenge in a public company. Employees looking at short-term gains might be disappointed during market downtrends. On the other hand, RSUs can be a useful tool for emphasizing a long-term commitment to the company, especially when short-term market conditions are unfavorable.

What You Can Do:

  • Vesting Schedules: Consider using graded vesting schedules to emphasize long-term commitment, or cliff vesting if you want to reward staying power at a particular milestone.

  • Communication Strategy: Clearly articulate the long-term vision and financial goals of the company in your internal communications to help employees see beyond short-term market volatility.

3. The Competitive Edge

In a public company, offering RSUs can also serve as a competitive edge when trying to attract top-tier talent, especially during volatile market conditions when job security is a priority for many. RSUs can offer that assurance of long-term value, even if the immediate market conditions are not ideal.

What You Can Do:

  • Transparency in Recruiting: Make it clear how RSUs fit into the overall compensation and benefits package during the recruiting process.

  • Benchmarking: Regularly compare your RSU offerings with industry competitors to ensure you remain an attractive employer.

RSU in Private Companies

For private companies, RSUs operate within a more controlled environment, yet they are not entirely insulated from volatility. The lack of a public market for the stock does not eliminate fluctuations in perceived value. Factors such as fundraising rounds, acquisition talks, and even industry-wide developments can have a significant impact.

1. Valuation and Employee Perception

In private companies, RSUs are tied to internal valuations, which may change with fundraising rounds, significant contracts, or key business milestones. Unlike public companies, where stock prices fluctuate daily, valuation changes in private firms are less frequent but often more significant. These big shifts can have a substantial impact on how employees view their RSUs and, by extension, their relationship with the company.

What You Can Do:

  • Regular Valuations: Contract with third-party firms to regularly conduct fair market valuations of the company. This ensures that RSU values are transparent and up-to-date.

  • Open Channels for Dialogue: Create forums or town halls where employees can openly discuss their RSUs, ask questions, and get clarifications on any changes in valuation.

2. Liquidity Concerns

Unlike public companies where employees can easily sell vested shares, liquidity is a concern in private firms. The opportunity to monetize RSUs usually comes during specific events like an IPO or acquisition.

What You Can Do:

  • Secondary Markets: Explore creating a secondary internal market where employees can sell their vested RSUs to other interested parties within set guidelines.

  • Liquidity Event Planning: Clearly outline how RSUs will be treated during potential liquidity events like an IPO or acquisition, so employees know what to expect.

3. The Talent Attraction Factor

RSUs in private companies are often seen as a long-term bet. They can be an incredibly effective tool for attracting talent willing to invest their time and skills for a future payoff. During times of market volatility, the promise of future stability through RSUs can be particularly appealing.

What You Can Do:

  • Competitive Analysis: Frequently assess your RSU package in comparison with those offered by other startups or private companies in your sector.

  • Narrative Building: Build a compelling narrative around the potential upside of your RSUs to make your offer more attractive to prospective employees.

How Market Volatility Affects RSUs

Impact of Market Fluctuations on RSU Value

Market volatility has a direct influence on the value of your company's stock, and consequently, the RSUs you offer to your employees. When the market is unstable, your stock's value can fluctuate dramatically in short periods, affecting the perceived worth of the RSUs. While this can generate excitement during uptrends, downtrends can lead to confusion and dissatisfaction among your employees. Therefore, it's important to consider market volatility as a significant factor in your RSU strategy. As a response, some companies actively monitor market trends and adjust the number of RSUs granted to maintain a consistent value proposition for their employees.

The Reality of "Paper Gains" and "Paper Losses"

Another concept to understand and communicate to your team is that of "paper gains" and "paper losses." Essentially, a paper gain refers to an unrealized increase in an asset's value, and conversely, a paper loss is an unrealized decrease. This means that until RSUs are vested and converted to actual stocks that are then sold, any increase or decrease in value remains hypothetical. The implication is that employees shouldn't get overly anxious or overly excited by market fluctuations affecting their RSUs. The true value of an RSU is realized only when it is vested and subsequently sold, making it critical for employees to think about their RSUs as a long-term investment rather than a short-term opportunity.

Managing Emotional Reactions to Market Changes

One often overlooked aspect is the emotional toll that market volatility can have on your employees, particularly when a significant portion of their compensation comes in the form of RSUs. During times of market instability, employees may be more likely to check the current value of their RSUs frequently, leading to unnecessary stress. To mitigate this, companies can offer financial wellness programs, counseling, or webinars that address how to manage stress and expectations during volatile markets.

Tax Implications of Market Volatility on RSUs

Timing of Tax Events

The tax implications of RSUs are particularly susceptible to market volatility because the taxable event often occurs when the RSUs vest and become actual shares. During market volatility, the value of these shares can fluctuate widely, meaning employees may owe more or less in taxes depending on the market conditions at the time of vesting. The timing of these tax events is critical for employees and affects how they manage their finances. Therefore, you should provide comprehensive tax guidance that includes advising employees on how market conditions at the time of vesting could affect their tax obligations.

Tax Strategies During Volatile Markets

There are tax strategies that can mitigate the impact of market volatility on RSUs. For instance, some employees may opt to sell a portion of their vested shares immediately to cover tax obligations, thereby reducing exposure to future market fluctuations. Other employees might hold onto their shares if they anticipate a market upswing, but this comes with the risk of increased tax liability if the market moves against them. Your company can play an instrumental role in helping employees understand these options by offering financial counseling services or providing resources that explain the various tax strategies related to RSUs.

The Role of Tax Withholding

Many companies offer a 'sell-to-cover' option, where enough shares are sold at vesting to cover the employee’s anticipated tax liability. While this is a convenient option, it can become complicated during volatile market conditions. If the share price drops significantly after the 'sell-to-cover' transaction, employees might feel like they've lost more than they've gained. Conversely, if the share price spikes, they could end up owing additional taxes. Clear communication about how 'sell-to-cover' works and how it might be impacted by market volatility can go a long way in alleviating employee concerns.

Communicating RSU Compensation with Employees during Market Volatility

Importance of Open Dialogue

One of the most crucial elements in managing RSUs during market volatility is maintaining an open line of communication with your employees. When the market is in flux, rumors and anxieties can spread quickly within your organization. Addressing these concerns head-on with transparent, timely information can prevent unnecessary panic and maintain employee morale. Therefore, a well-planned communication strategy that anticipates potential market downturns or upswings can help guide your employees through turbulent times, ensuring that they have accurate and current information.

Tools and Resources for Transparent Communication

It's not just about what you communicate, but also how you do it. Leverage a variety of communication channels to disseminate information about RSUs and market conditions. These can range from emails and intranet posts to town hall meetings and individual consultation sessions with financial advisors. The aim is to make complex financial information accessible and understandable to all employees, regardless of their financial literacy level. Tailor your messages to fit different segments of your employee base, providing both broad overviews and detailed analyses for those who want to dig deeper.

Frequency of Communication

During volatile market conditions, the frequency of your communications needs to ramp up. Employees will be eager for updates, and silence can lead to speculation and anxiety. It's advisable to set a predetermined schedule for RSU-related updates and stick to it. Whether it's weekly or bi-weekly briefings during turbulent periods, the regularity of these updates can be comforting to employees, helping to set expectations and diminish uncertainty.

Case Studies: Handling Market Volatility with RSUs

Navigating the Dot-Com Bubble with RSUs: Microsoft's Pivot

During the dot-com bubble burst at the turn of the century, tech companies saw unprecedented volatility in their stock prices. Microsoft, which had relied heavily on stock options for employee compensation, faced a unique challenge when many of these options went underwater. The company took a pioneering step by shifting to RSUs as a means to both retain and motivate its workforce. By making this change, Microsoft not only stabilized its compensation structure but also demonstrated the flexibility that RSUs offer as a tool for managing human resources in volatile conditions. For you, this case study highlights the need for adaptive strategies that can respond to extreme market conditions.

Airbnb: Handling IPO Amidst Market Instability

Another instructive example is Airbnb, which went public in December 2020, during a period of significant market instability due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of traditional immediate vesting, the company introduced a double trigger RSU vesting mechanism that provided employees with some downside protection. This made it so that employees would only fully vest their RSUs when both the time requirement was met and a liquidity event occurred. As a result, Airbnb effectively allayed employee concerns and delivered a successful IPO, showcasing how innovative RSU strategies can be employed even in uncertain market conditions.

Tesla's Gamble: RSUs Tied to Performance Milestones

Tesla presents another fascinating case study where the company structured its RSUs around specific performance and market cap milestones. This approach served to motivate the workforce by linking RSU value not just to time spent at the company but also to the company's success. In a volatile market where Tesla's stock has seen dramatic ups and downs, this performance-based approach has maintained employee focus on long-term objectives, demonstrating how RSUs can be structured to incentivize performance even in the face of market unpredictability.

Strategies for Helping Your Employees Manage RSUs during Periods of Volatility

1. Motivate Employees

Platforms like Upstock.io offer motivational dashboards that help employees visualize the potential value of their RSUs in real-time, despite volatile market conditions. This way, your employees remain steadfast in realizing the gains they could get out of their hard-earned RSUs without being emotionally swayed by uncertainties in market trends.

2. Diversify RSU Portfolio

Consider offering RSUs in a basket of companies, not just your own, to hedge against market volatility.

3. Employee Training Programs

Implement training programs on financial literacy and investment strategies specific to RSUs.

Final Thoughts

Understanding how RSUs work in both public and private companies can help you navigate the complexities of market volatility. From tax implications to employee communication, being prepared can make the journey smoother for both you and your workforce. Make sure to leverage tools like Upstock.io and offer a diversified financial education to help your employees make informed decisions about their RSUs, no matter the market condition.

Want to see RSU in action just like in top tech giants like Google and Facebook? Book a demo with Upstock today and find out why RSUs are the next big thing in equity compensation.

Equity should be easy to understand

Figuring out equity offers can leave you feeling demotivated and paralyzed. Upstock makes equity motivating, inspiring, easy to deploy.

Learn More
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.

Previous: RSUs as Inducement Grants: Tips for Startup Talent Acquisition‍ Next: RSUs for C-level Executives: Special Considerations For Top Management‍