It is hard to find comparative data on stock options, restricted stock/RSUs, and performance shares. Fortunately, the 2016 Domestic Stock Plan Design Survey and the 2014 Domestic Stock Plan Administration Survey by the National Association of Stock Plan Professionals (NASPP) offer data letting you compare the terms of your equity awards to those of grants at other companies. Of course, you need to be familiar with the specifics of your company's plan, as those are the rules that apply to you.

Types Of Stock Compensation

After many years of catching up on stock options, restricted stock and (especially) restricted stock units are now more commonly granted than stock options among the companies studied by the NASPP. The 2016 survey revealed that 93% of the responding companies award restricted stock units under an omnibus plan (and 75% do so with restricted stock). For further updates on the use of restricted stock/RSUs at companies, see a related FAQ.

Grants with performance-based features (e.g. performance shares) occur at 92% of the companies surveyed by the NASPP in 2016, up from 87% in 2013 and from just 71% in the 2010 survey.

Eligibility

According to the NASPP's 2016 survey, the higher your employment rank in a company is, the more likely you are to receive an equity award. For example, performance-based awards are granted much more often to the CEO and other named executives (at 80% of the companies) than to middle management (at only 24%).

The table below shows the surveyed companies' eligibility practices at various levels in the corporate hierarchy. (The table gives the percentage of companies that make each type of grant available to the specified group.)

Corporate level Stock options or SARs Restricted stock/RSUs Performance-based awards
CEO, CFO, and named executive 50% 79% 80%
Other Senior management 45% 84% 69%
Middle management 26% 77% 24%
Other exempt employees 13% 52% 11%
Nonexempt employees 7% 19% 3%

Reasons For Making Grants

The 2016 survey gives the following as the most commonly reported corporate reasons for granting stock options and restricted stock/RSUs.

Reason for making grants to employees or executives For stock options (% of companies) For restricted stock/RSUs (% of companies)
Align with shareholder interests 79% 82%
Retention 68% 89%
Incentive/reward 75% 81%
Remaining competitive with industry peers 69% 78%
Fostering a culture of employee ownership 34% 40%
Reward for meeting specific performance targets 22% 47%
Normal practice at hiring 19% 30%

Restricted Stock & RSUs: Vesting, Withholding Methods, Deferral Features

For restricted stock and RSUs, the prevailing form of vesting among the companies surveyed in 2016 is graded vesting (65%), and 35% have cliff vesting. Within these groups:

  • At companies with graded vesting, 44% vest the grants over a total period of three years and 43% over a total period of four years.
  • For graded vesting schedules, 85% of the companies vest shares annually during the vesting period, while only 6% have quarterly vesting after a one-year cliff period.
  • At companies with cliff vesting, the most common vesting period is three years (81%).

Share withholding is the prevailing method of collecting the taxes owed when restricted stock/RSUs vest. Nearly 90% of the surveyed companies use share withholding for employees, and 92% use share withholding for executives. At 54% of the companies, employees have no choice in the method used to cover taxes at vesting.

Most of the surveyed companies (67%) do not allow the deferral of share delivery with RSUs. For companies that do allow deferrals, 88% let their employees elect deferrals, and 12% make deferrals mandatory.

Stock Options: NQSOs, Term Length, Vesting

The 2016 survey revealed that at option-granting companies, nonqualified stock options (NQSOs) continue to prevail (91%). Ten-year option terms are still most common (at 78% of the companies), though a significant minority of the surveyed companies (15%) grant options with seven-year terms.

Most (90%) of the responding companies use a graded vesting schedule for stock options (a certain percentage of options vest each year, month, or quarter). Meanwhile, only 10% offer cliff vesting (100% of options vest at a specified point; 0% vest before then).

Among option-granting companies with graded vesting schedules:

  • 49% vest all of the options after four years
  • 39% offer complete vesting after three years
  • 10% vest the options over five years

At companies where vesting is graded, just about all the vesting is time-based (i.e. not linked to the performance of an individual, company, or stock index). The NASPP's survey also found the following about vesting intervals:

  • 83% of the surveyed option-granting companies with graded vesting schedules choose to vest options annually (only 2% have monthly or quarterly vesting).
  • The second-most-common graded vesting schedule for options consists of a one-year cliff period and monthly vesting thereafter (9% of the surveyed companies).
  • The most common overall length of option vesting schedule is four years (46% of the companies).

Communication Needs Improvement

According to the NASPP's 2014 survey, companies are doing more to communicate with grant recipients than they used to, though some employees continue to let in-the-money stock options expire, wasting the corporate value of the equity compensation. Among the companies that have stock plan communications:

  • 80% of the responding companies provide employees with informational materials on stock grants when the grants are made, 21% do so regularly (e.g. yearly), and 22% do so immediately at hiring. Nearly all of the companies (96%) email this information to employees or provide links to online materials, though a significant minority of the companies (39%) also still distribute these materials in printed form.

  • 91% of the surveyed companies distribute plan documents (excluding grant agreements) by an online route, whether the internet, a corporate intranet, or the website of a third-party stock plan administrator. Most (78%) also deliver the plan prospectus in these ways, and about 70% provide FAQs, descriptive documents, or other educational materials through online portals.
  • 34% of the companies directly notify optionholders of upcoming expiration dates, while an additional 47% delegate this type of notification to a third party (such as the brokerage firm or transfer agent that handles exercises). However, 18% of the surveyed companies do not notify optionholders at all about upcoming expiration dates. A third of the companies do not notify grant recipients of upcoming vesting dates.

Next Article

Part 2 of this series digs deeper into the NASPP survey data, covering such topics as grant guidelines, expiration provisions, and what happens to options at job termination or in a merger involving the company.

Editor's Note: The NASPP is the organization that professionals rely on to keep up with practices and developments that affect equity compensation. For more information and a wealth of resources, see www.naspp.com.

Kate Victory is a former content developer and editor at myStockOptions.com. This article continues to be regularly updated by the website's editorial staff.