Company Stock Options

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Company Stock Options: What You Need to Know

Company stock options are a popular employee benefit that helps attract, retain, and reward employees. In the most basic terms, stock options give employees the right to buy a certain number of a company’s shares of stock at a fixed price. Understanding stock options - including their benefits and drawbacks - is crucial for making informed financial decisions. This article will explain the benefits of offering and receiving options and the important terms and conditions to watch out for.

What are Stock Options?

Stock options are agreements between an employer and employee that give the employee the right to buy a set number of stocks at a fixed price, within a certain period of time. Every stock option agreement is different, and the number of stocks, their price, and the expiration date typically depend on the company and type of option being offered.

There are two main types of stock options:

  • Non-qualified Stock Options (NQSOs): These are the most common type of stock options companies offer to employees. They can be offered to anyone, including non-executive-level employees.
  • Incentive Stock Options (ISOs): ISOs are intended for executive-level employees, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has special rules that apply to these options. ISOs have potential tax benefits that NQSOs do not.

Benefits of Stock Options

For employers, stock options are an attractive component of a compensation package. They can be used to reward employees, motivate them to perform better, and align their interests with those of the company’s owners and shareholders. Depending on the type of option, they can also be used to minimize payroll taxes.

For employees, the major benefit of stock option plans is the potential for increased wealth. Since employees purchase the stock at the set price, and not at its current market value, they could significantly increase their wealth as the company’s share price rises. This allows employees to benefit from their hard work and also from their employer’s success. Additionally, employees participating in these plans typically don’t need to pay taxes on the income from exercising the options.

Drawbacks of Stock Options

Stock options come with certain risks. Companies may leave stock options “underwater” if the underlying stock’s market price is less than the option price. If this happens, exercising the options won’t be profitable. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the company’s share price will rise, so there is a risk that employees may not reap as many of the rewards they may have anticipated.

Finally, stock options typically vest over a period of time so employees may have to wait a few years before they can exercise the options. If a key employee leaves the company before the options vest, they risk losing out on the potential benefits of stock options.

Key Terms to Understand

It’s important for both employers and employees to know and understand the key terms associated with stock options. Here are some of the most important ones:

  • Strike Price (or Exercise Price): The set price at which the employee can buy the shares of the company.
  • Grant Date: The date that the option is granted to the employee.
  • Expiration Date: The date by which the option must be exercised, typically no more than 10 years after the grant date.
  • Vesting Date: The date when the employee can exercise the options. Generally, stock options vest over a period of several years.
  • Cliff: The time period, usually one year, before stock options vest.
  • Blackout Period: The period of time, usually ranging from one to three months, in which employees can’t exercise their options.

Getting Started with Stock Options

As with any financial decision, understanding the terms and conditions of stock options is essential for making informed choices. Employers should seek financial and legal advice before offering stock options, and employees should meet with a financial advisor before exercising their options. Contacting an appropriate professional to ensure a successful experience is the best way to start.


Stock options are a popular benefit both employers and employees can use to maximize their wealth. To take full advantage of this option, employers and employees need to understand the tax implications and negotiate vesting schedules, exercise prices, and blackout periods. With a thorough understanding of the benefits and risks associated, employers and employees can create a stock option plan that works for both parties.




December 22, 2022

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