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How equity compensation drives motivation
Employee Engagement

How equity compensation drives motivation

Palak Jamuar
May 14, 2024

"Warren Buffett once said, 'If you don't find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work until you die.' 

This simple idea can change the way we think about motivating employees. Instead of just working for a paycheck, what if employees could earn a piece of the company's success too?

Equity compensation stands out as a valuable yet often misunderstood asset. It goes beyond mere monetary rewards and provides employees with a stake in the company's prosperity. It's a system where individuals earn ownership rights in the company by meeting specific criteria, such as tenure or performance targets. This arrangement fosters commitment and dedication, aligning employees' financial interests with the organization's success. But what exactly is it? Let's delve deeper into its intricacies to uncover its true value and impact.

What is equity compensation?

Equity compensation refers to a remuneration arrangement in which employees are granted a portion of ownership in the company, typically in the form of stocks or ownership rights. This allocation serves as an incentive mechanism, fostering heightened motivation among employees to enhance company performance, as their vested interest aligns with organizational success. Essentially, it functions as an additional reward system beyond monetary compensation, recognizing and rewarding employees' contributions to the company's growth and prosperity.

What are the different types of equity compensation?

Equity compensation is a way to give your team a slice of the pie, making them partners in the company's success. It can make a real difference in how connected and motivated your employees feel towards your company. When it comes to corporate rewards, equity compensation takes various forms. Listed below are the different types of equity compensation available and how they can fit into your company’s reward strategy:

1. Stock options

Stock options are perhaps the most well-known form of equity compensation. They give employees the right, but not the obligation, to purchase company stock at a set price, known as the exercise price, within a certain period.  This allows them to benefit if the stock price rises above the set price, enabling them to buy low and potentially sell high, increasing their earnings. There are two types of stock options:

  • ​​ISOs: The preferred pick for employees due to tax advantages, best for those you really want to incentivize to stick around.
  • NSOs: More flexible and not just limited to employees, these are great for consultants and board members who are contributing to your growth.

2. Restricted stock units (RSUs)

RSUs grant employees company shares, but they come with restrictions and vesting criteria. These are shares that cannot be sold immediately. The employee will not own the stock or have any shareholder rights (like voting) until the shares vest. Upon vesting, the employee receives the shares, and they are taxed as ordinary income based on the market value at that time. This can serve as a long-term incentive for the employee’s contribution to the company's success and growth.

3. Restricted stock awards (RSAs)

Restricted stock awards are similar to RSUs but differ in that employees technically own the stock immediately upon grant. Employees also get voting rights from day one but might have to give back some shares if they leave early. It’s a way of saying, “We’re in this together, but we both need to commit.” RSAs are taxable upon vesting, where the market value of the vested shares is considered taxable income.

4. Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs)

ESPPs are a bit like a company store, but for stocks—and with a discount. Employees can buy company stock at below-market prices, often through automatic payroll deductions. This allows employees to invest in the company at a lower cost and benefit from its growth, fostering a sense of ownership and aligning their interests with the company's performance.

5. Stock appreciation rights (SARs)

SARs offer employees cash or stock payouts based on the increase in the company's stock value over a predetermined period. Unlike stock options, employees do not need to purchase shares or pay an exercise price with SARs. They can simply receive the appreciation in cash or company stock. This makes SARs a more straightforward way to participate in company growth without the financial risk of buying stock.

6. Performance shares

Performance shares are granted to employees based on the achievement of specific performance targets or milestones. Unlike stock options or RSUs, where the main requirement is often just sticking around, performance shares hinge on achieving specific milestones, such as revenue targets, profit goals, or market share achievements. This approach ensures that the rewards are closely tied to contributions that drive the company forward.

How does equity compensation motivate employees?

Equity compensation motivates employees by directly linking their financial well-being to the company's overall performance and prosperity.  Here are some benefits that highlight the significance of equity compensation in driving employee motivation and dedication. 

Employee loyalty and commitment:

When employees hold equity, they're not just workers; they become part-owners of the company. This sense of ownership transforms their perspective, making the company's success personally relevant. Since they have a financial stake in the organization's performance, they are more likely to think long-term, make decisions that benefit the business, and feel a deeper connection to their work and the organization.

Provides financial rewards beyond salary:

It offers employees an opportunity to accumulate wealth and build financial security over time. As the value of the company's stock increases, so does the value of their equity holdings, potentially leading to significant financial gains, especially if the company experiences substantial growth.

Create a culture of shared success:

Through equity compensation, employees have the chance to directly benefit from the company's growth and success. As the business expands, so does the value of their equity holdings, providing them with a tangible reward for their contributions to the company's achievements.

Employee engagement and satisfaction:

Equity compensation programs can enhance employee engagement and satisfaction by making employees feel valued and appreciated. When employees perceive that their efforts are recognized and rewarded through ownership in the company, they are more likely to feel motivated, engaged, and satisfied in their roles.

Alignment of interests:

Equity compensation aligns employees' financial interests with the company's performance. As the company grows and succeeds, the value of their equity increases, providing a direct incentive to contribute to the company’s success. When employees have a direct stake in the company's performance, they are more inclined to make decisions and take actions that benefit the organization as a whole, driving overall success and profitability.

Risk sharing:

Equity compensation allows employees to share in the risks and rewards of owning a portion of the company. This can create a stronger sense of teamwork and collaboration among employees, as they are collectively invested in overcoming challenges and achieving shared objectives.

Retention of top talent:

Equity compensation plans often come with vesting schedules that incentivize employees to stay with the company longer. Since equity awards often vest over time, employees are motivated to stay with the company to realize the full value of their equity holdings, reducing turnover and preserving institutional knowledge and expertise. This structure not only rewards longevity but also builds a more experienced, committed workforce.

Attracts top talent:

In competitive job markets, equity compensation can be a deciding factor for top talent considering their options. The opportunity to become an owner in the company can be an appealing incentive for talented individuals seeking opportunities for professional growth and financial reward. Offering equity is a clear signal that a company values its employees’ contributions and is committed to rewarding those who play a significant role in its growth.

What is the difference between cash and equity compensation?

Cash compensation represents the direct payment received for one's work, providing immediate financial gratification. Conversely, equity compensation grants ownership in the company through stocks or similar assets. While cash ensures immediate earnings, equity offers the potential for future gains, aligning the employee's interests with the company's success and fostering a long-term commitment to organizational growth.

Choosing between cash and equity compensation—or determining the right mix—depends on several factors, including the company’s stage of growth, financial health, industry norms, and the objectives of its compensation strategy. Startups and growth-oriented companies might lean more heavily on equity to conserve cash while incentivizing long-term commitment and performance. Established companies might offer a mix, providing the stability of cash compensation while using equity to align executives and key contributors with the company's success.


Equity compensation serves as a reminder that the company's success is everyone's success. It's a practical way to ensure that the rewards of hard work and innovation are felt by all who contribute, not just those at the top.

But, equity compensation is not without its challenges. It requires careful planning, clear communication, and a transparent framework to ensure that employees understand the value and potential of their equity. When implemented thoughtfully, it can be a powerful tool for building a motivated, engaged, and loyal workforce.

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