Transparent Communication about Compensation: From Base Salary to Equity

Transparent Communication about Compensation: From Base Salary to Equity

June 19, 2023

Transparent Communication about Compensation: From Base Salary to Equity

Remember the public relations nightmare that befell Wells Fargo back in 2016? The bank was embroiled in a scandal involving the creation of unauthorized accounts, but what added fuel to the fire was the hefty severance package awarded to then-CEO John G. Stumpf. Employees were laid off, and public trust reached an all-time low, yet the executive compensation details were shrouded in a veil of uncertainty and ambiguity. The entire episode served as a flashpoint that brought executive pay, particularly how it's communicated, under intense scrutiny.

In light of such high-profile missteps, transparent communication about executive compensation has never been more crucial. As a startup founder or company owner, you have a unique opportunity to set the tone for how compensation—be it base salary, performance bonuses, or equity options like RSUs—is discussed and understood within your organization. Your openness in this sensitive area can mean the difference between an aligned, motivated team and a disengaged workforce simmering with distrust. This article will guide you through the importance of clear communication in executive pay packages, laying the foundation for trust and alignment within your organization.

Why Transparency Matters in Executive Compensation

When you're steering the ship, it's easy to forget that every decision you make sets a precedent for the rest of your team, including how you handle executive compensation. There's a cascade effect that starts with you and trickles down through every layer of the organization. But why is transparency around executive pay so crucial? 

1. A Litmus Test for Corporate Ethics

Your compensation package is more than a number—it's a litmus test for the ethical climate of your organization. When you choose transparency, you're sending a clear message that your company is committed to fairness and accountability. It demonstrates to your employees, shareholders, and even customers that you have nothing to hide.

Without transparency, employees might speculate about your compensation, often imagining it to be higher than it really is. Speculation can breed resentment, which can, in turn, affect productivity and morale.

Your attitude toward disclosing executive pay will set the tone for how open the company is about its finances in general. A transparent leader often leads a transparent organization.

2. A Factor in Talent Attraction and Retention

In an age where skilled talent has multiple options, transparency can be a differentiator. Prospective executives and other employees do their homework. If they find that your company is open about executive compensation, they are likelier to trust that you'll be fair in other dealings too.

Being upfront about compensation can give you a competitive edge when wooing top talent, who might have multiple offers. They’re more likely to choose an organization where they don't have to second-guess the leadership.

High-performing employees want to know that there’s a fair system of reward and recognition. Transparency in executive compensation can serve as a benchmark, reassuring them about career progression and potential earnings.

3. Influence on Investor Relations

Investors are becoming increasingly vigilant about where their money is going, and the compensation of executives is often under the microscope. Your willingness to be transparent can enhance investor relations.

By clearly explaining how your compensation is structured and how it ties to the performance and company growth, you're inviting investors into a relationship built on trust.

Transparency in executive compensation is often a factor considered by ethical or socially responsible investors. By being open, you make your company more attractive to a broader range of investment options.

Transparency around executive pay isn't just an HR issue; it's a multi-faceted strategy that influences your corporate culture, talent management, and investor relations. As a startup founder or company owner, you set the precedent. Make sure it's one that fosters trust, alignment, and long-term success.

Balancing Base Salary and Incentives

Crafting the perfect balance between base salary and performance-based incentives is an art as much as it is a science. This isn't just an exercise in numbers; it's an intricate relationship between risk and reward, both for you and your stakeholders.

1. Base Salary

The base salary you set for yourself and other executives is often viewed as a reflection of your company's stability and market positioning. It often acts as a benchmark for the rest of the industry, especially if you're in a leadership position within a high-growth or niche market. It's not just about you; it's about how the market perceives the value of roles similar to yours.

A base salary that aligns with industry standards signals to both employees and investors that the company is in good financial health. Conversely, a salary significantly below market rates could raise red flags about the company's stability.

2. Crafting Performance Incentives

Performance incentives like bonuses, stock options, and other forms of variable pay can be potent motivators. However, they require careful thought.

Make sure that any performance incentives are aligned with specific, measurable business goals. Whether it's achieving particular revenue milestones or expanding into a new market, these incentives should reflect the company's strategic objectives.

Consider the time frame over which these incentives will be paid out. Short-term bonuses can drive immediate performance but might not ensure long-term commitment. Long-term incentives like stock options or RSUs, on the other hand, can encourage a longer tenure but might not provide immediate motivation.

3. The Employee Perception Factor

The way you balance base salary and performance incentives doesn't just affect your pocketbook; it sets a precedent for how employees view their own compensation packages.

If your package is heavily skewed towards performance incentives, it sends a message that the company rewards results, which can motivate your team. However, make sure that this structure is echoed across other levels of the company to maintain a sense of fairness.

A balance that leans heavily towards a guaranteed base salary might suit a company at a particular maturity stage but consider how it impacts the risk tolerance across your organization. If you play it safe, you're signaling a lower-risk appetite, which might trickle down to the decision-making ethos of your team.

Creating an RSU Equity Pool for Key Executives

While base salaries and bonuses are important, offering an equity stake through RSUs can be the linchpin for aligning executive incentives with company performance. However, creating an equity pool specifically for key executives involves more than just a distribution of shares. It requires a nuanced approach to ensure that it fosters trust, is clearly communicated, and positively impacts your company's culture. Here’s how:

1. Transparency in Award Criteria

Transparency in how RSUs are awarded sets the stage for a merit-based culture.

Establish and communicate clearly defined metrics for RSU grants. Whether it’s tied to individual performance, team milestones, or overall company metrics, this eliminates the room for speculation and paints a clear picture of how RSUs are earned.

Regularly scheduled evaluations for RSU awards bring predictability and remove the shroud of secrecy around equity grants. Transparency in this aspect ensures everyone knows what to expect and when.

2. Communicating Vesting Schedules

The vesting schedule for RSUs can often be complex but breaking it down into understandable terms is key.

Avoid jargon when explaining vesting schedules. Make sure even someone outside of the finance department would understand. This cultivates an environment where employees feel empowered, not confused.

Consider holding open Q&A sessions or providing detailed FAQs that address common questions around vesting. This ensures that the process is demystified for all stakeholders involved.

3. Managing Stakeholder Expectations

Being transparent about executive RSUs is essential not just for internal alignment, but also for managing stakeholder expectations.

Regular briefings or reports on RSU allocation can serve as a touchpoint to gauge stakeholder sentiment. These communications help maintain trust with investors who want to know how equity is being distributed among executives.

If your company is publicly traded, transparency in executive RSUs becomes even more critical. Publicly disclosing these details in a straightforward manner can positively impact market perception.

4. Perception Among Regular Employees

Your rank-and-file employees will have opinions about executive RSUs, and their perceptions can influence workplace culture.

Make sure that the equity structure for executives serves as an aspirational example for other employees. This doesn’t mean the numbers will be the same, but the principles of transparency and fairness should be consistent across levels.

Even though RSUs may be targeted at executives, inclusively communicating these decisions fosters a sense of unity. Employees are more likely to accept executive equity compensation as fair when the process is transparent and they see a potential path for themselves in the future.

Creating an equity pool through RSUs for your key executives isn't just a financial exercise; it's a strategic move that demands transparency and clear communication. The way you handle it sends a message to every stakeholder, from your top executives to the newest recruit. Make sure it's a message that fosters trust, fairness and long-term commitment to your company's vision.

Governance and Oversight

Your compensation isn't just between you and your CFO. It often involves a Compensation Committee, the Board of Directors, and sometimes even shareholder votes. The governance and oversight of executive compensation are checks and balances to ensure fairness and alignment with company goals.

Transparency extends to this process too. Make sure that you communicate how decisions about executive pay are made, who is involved, and what metrics are used for assessment. This can build trust not only within your team but also among your investors.

Communicating Compensation: Where and When

Where you communicate about executive compensation matters almost as much as what you’re communicating.

Utilize internal newsletters, all-hands meetings, or dedicated HR portals to announce changes or provide updates on executive compensation. These platforms are best suited for in-depth explanations and can be more personal, catering to your team's culture.

For publicly traded companies or those seeking external investments, compensation details often require public disclosure. In these cases, press releases or filings with financial regulators serve as the appropriate channels.

Timing is Everything

Timing is not just a matter of courtesy; it’s a matter of strategy.

Aligning major announcements about executive compensation with quarterly or annual financial reports can add context to these figures. This allows stakeholders to see the full financial picture when evaluating the reasonableness of executive pay.

Timing announcements after significant company milestones—like a successful product launch or market expansion—can further justify the compensation structure, demonstrating a clear link between executive performance and reward.

Ensuring Frequency

Striking the right balance in the frequency of your communications is key to keeping all stakeholders informed without overwhelming them.

Make it a practice to offer regular updates, even if they are brief. A monthly or quarterly update can keep the dialogue open and quash any rumors or misinformation.

Sometimes, situations arise that warrant immediate communication—like regulatory changes affecting stock options or a sudden change in executive leadership. In such cases, an ad-hoc announcement might be necessary to keep everyone in the loop.


Inclusion here doesn’t mean that every employee needs to be privy to the minutiae of executive contracts but that the broader themes around compensation are openly discussed.

Consider running anonymous surveys asking employees for their opinions or questions about executive pay. This demonstrates that you value their input and are open to discussion.

Invite your major investors to private roundtables where executive compensation is discussed in an open forum. This practice not only maintains investor trust but can also provide valuable insights into their expectations.

Leveraging a Transparent Platform

Want to know something cool? Upstock’s RSU management platform allows you to adjust the transparency settings for viewing equity pools so that you can choose who can view equity pools and whose equity they can also see. Depending on your company culture and goals, this may result in better outcomes for ensuring alignment of interests. Book a demo with Upstock today to see how its dashboard works for you.

Unlock Your Equity IQ: Are You an Upstock Pro Yet?