Restricted stock units, or RSUs, are a form of equity compensation offered to employees of a company. They’re similar to, but distinct from, employee stock options (ESOs).
You are probably pretty familiar with many of the standard offers in a job compensation package. When receiving an offer letter from a potential new employer, employees could typically receive a salary figure, paid vacation and sick day allowances, some type of health insurance, and, possibly, a retirement plan. RSUs and ESOs can be yet another part of that package.
What Is a Restricted Stock Unit?
Restricted stock units are a type of compensation offered to employees in the form of company stock. RSUs are not technically stock, though; they are a specific amount of promised stock shares that the employee will receive at a future date, or across many future dates.
Restricted stock units are a type of financial incentive for employees, similar to a bonus, since employees typically receive promised stock shares only when they complete specific tasks or achieve significant work milestones or anniversaries. Again, RSUs are different from employee stock options, too.
RSU Advantages and Disadvantages
Among the key advantages of RSUs are, as mentioned, that they provide an incentive for employees to remain with a company. For employers, other advantages include relatively small administrative costs, and a delay in share dilution.
As for disadvantages, RSUs can be included in income calculations for an employee’s income taxes (more on this below), and they don’t provide dividends to employees, either. They also don’t come with voting rights, which some employees may not like.
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Know the Dates: Grant and Vesting
In the case of RSU stock, there are two important dates to keep in mind: the grant date and the vesting date.
A grant date refers to the exact day a company pledges to grant an employee company stock.
Employees don’t own granted company stock starting on the grant date; rather, they must wait for the stock shares to vest before claiming full ownership and deciding to sell, hold, or diversify stock earnings.
The vesting date refers to the exact day that the promised company stock shares vest Employees receive their RSUs according to a vesting schedule that is determined by the employer. Factors such as employment length and specific job performance goals can affect a vesting schedule.
The employer that wants to incentivize a long-term commitment to the company, for example, might tailor the RSU vesting schedule to reflect the employee’s tenure at the company. In other words, RSUs would only vest after an employee has pledged their time and hard work to the company for a certain number of years, or the vested percentage of total RSUs could increase over time.
If there are tangible milestones that the employee must achieve, the employer could organize the vesting schedule around those specific accomplishments, too.
RSU Vesting Examples
Typically, the vesting schedule of RSU stock occurs on either a cliff schedule or a graded schedule. If you leave your position at the company before your RSU shares vest, you generally forfeit the right to collect on the remaining restricted stock units.
On a graded vesting schedule, an employee would keep the amount of RSUs already vested, but would forfeit leftover shares. If that same employee is on a cliff vesting schedule and their shares have not yet vested, then they no longer have the right to their restricted stock units.
A cliff schedule means that 100% of the RSUs vest at once. For example, if you receive 4,000 RSUs at the beginning of your job, on a cliff vesting schedule you would receive all 4,000 on one date.
Graded Vesting Schedule
With a graded schedule, you would only receive a portion of those 4,000 RSUs at a time. For example, you could receive 25% of your RSUs once you’ve hit your two-year company anniversary, 25% more after five years at the company, 25% more after seven years, and the final 25% after 10 years.
Alternatively, a graded vesting schedule might include varying intervals between vesting dates. For example, you could receive 25% of your 4,000 total RSUs after three years at the company, and then the remainder of your shares (3,000) could vest every month over the next three years at 100 per month.
Are Restricted Stock Units Risky?
As with any investment, there is always a level of uncertainty associated with RSUs. Even companies that are rapidly growing and have appreciating stock values can collapse at any time. While you do not have to spend money to purchase RSUs, the stock will eventually become part of your portfolio (as long as you stay with the company until they vest), and their value could change significantly over time.
If you end up owning a lot of stock in your company through your RSUs, you may also face concentration risk. Changes to your company can not only impact your salary but the RSU stock performance. Therefore, if the company is struggling, you could lose value in your portfolio at the same time that your income becomes less secure.
Diversifying your portfolio can help you minimize the risk of overexposure to your company. A good rule of thumb is to consider diversifying your holdings if more than 10% of your net worth is tied up with your company. Holding over 10% of your assets with your firm exposes you to more risk of loss. When calculating how much exposure you have, include assets such as:
• Other equity-based compensation
Are Restricted Stock Units Reported on My W-2?
Yes, restricted stock units are reported on your W-2.
The biggest difference between restricted stock units and employee stock options lies in the way that the Internal Revenue Service taxes them. While you owe tax on ESOs the moment you decide to exercise your options, RSU stock taxation happens at the time of vesting. Essentially, the IRS considers restricted stock units supplemental income.
RSU Tax Implications
When your RSUs vest, your employer will withhold taxes on them, just as they withhold taxes on your income during every pay period. The market value of the shares at the time of vesting appears on your W-2, meaning that you must pay normal payroll taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare, on them.
In some cases, your employer will withhold a smaller percentage on your RSU stock than what they withhold on your wages. What’s more, this taxation is only at the federal level and doesn’t account for any state taxes.
Since vested RSUs are considered supplemental income, they could bump you up to a higher income tax bracket and make you subject to higher taxes. If your company does not withhold enough money at the time of vesting, you may have to make up the difference at tax time, to either the IRS or your state.
So, it might be beneficial to plan ahead and come up with a strategy to manage the consequences of your RSUs on your taxes. Talking to a tax or financial professional before or right after your RSU shares vest could help you anticipate future complications and set yourself up for success come tax season.
How to Handle RSUs
If you work for a public company, that means that you can decide whether to sell or hold them. There are advantages to both options, depending on your individual financial profile.
Selling your vested RSU stock shares might help you minimize the investment risk of stock concentration. A concentrated stock position occurs when you invest a substantial portion of your assets in one investment or sector, rather than spreading out your investments and diversifying your portfolio.
Even if you are confident your company will continue to grow, stock market volatility means there’s always a risk that you could lose a portion of your portfolio in the event of a sudden downturn.
There is added risk when concentration occurs with RSU stock, since both your regular income and your stock depend on the success of the same company. If you lose your job and your company’s stock starts to depreciate at the same time, you could find yourself in a tight spot.
Selling some or all of your vested RSU shares and investing the cash elsewhere in different types of investments could minimize your overall risk.
Another option is to sell your vested RSU shares and keep the cash proceeds.. This might be a good choice if you have a financial goal that requires a large sum of money right away, like a car or house down payment, or maybe you’d like to pay off a big chunk of debt. You can also sell some of your RSUs to cover the tax bill that they create.
Holding onto your vested RSU shares might be a good strategy if you believe your company’s stock value will increase, especially in the short term. By holding out for a better price in the future, you could receive higher proceeds when you sell later, and grow the value of your portfolio in the meantime.
RSUs and Private Companies
How to handle RSUs at private companies can be more complicated, since there’s not always a liquid market where you can buy or sell your shares. Some private companies also use a “double-trigger” vesting schedule, in which shares don’t vest until the company has a liquidity event, such as an initial public offering or a buyout.
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RSUs are similar to stock options for employees. Your specific financial goals, the amount of debt you may hold, the other types of investments you might be making, are all factors to consider when weighing the pros and cons of selling or holding your RSU shares.
Perhaps the most pertinent thing to keep in mind, though, is that everyone’s financial situation is different – as so is their respective investing strategy. If you have RSU shares, it may be worthwhile to speak with a financial professional for advice and guidance.
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What is the difference between restricted stock units and stock options?
Restricted shares or restricted stock is stock that is under some sort of sales restriction, whereas stock options grant the holder the choice as to whether or not to buy a stock.
Do restricted stock units carry voting rights?
Restricted stock units do not carry voting rights, but the shares or stock itself may carry voting rights once the units vest.
How do RSUs work at private vs public companies?
One example of how RSUs may differ from private rather than public companies is in the vesting requirements. While public companies may have a single vesting requirement for RSUs, private companies may have two or more.
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