Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) are a popular way of giving company equity to employees at tech startups and large public companies. When you hear about how much money people at tech companies make it’s often because they have equity as part of their compensation package. When looking at your compensation package don’t just look at the salary. Also understand what your benefits are worth. Often we look at benefits like health insurance and retirement options like the 401(k) company match. But, what about equity compensation? Equity compensation is a perk companies use to give you an ownership stake in the company. This includes RSUs, ESPP and employee stock options.
If you don’t have RSUs in your compensation package today, you are missing out. If your company offers RSUs as one of their benefits, negotiate for RSUs during your next merit raise cycle or during your next promotion. Or, apply to companies that offer Restricted Stock Units as part of their compensation package. Learn below what RSUs are, what RSUs are worth to you, when you get RSUs, RSU tax considerations and the drawbacks of RSUs.
What Are RSUs or Restricted Stock Units?
RSUs, or Restricted Stock Units, are a form of compensation offered by employers to employees. They are company shares that are restricted, meaning that you can’t sell them right away. Instead, you will be given shares that vest over time. When you accept RSUs, they will come with a vesting schedule. Often, you’ll see vesting schedules that span 3+ years. This schedule will show how many shares will vest on which dates. Typically, there will be one day per year and each of those days will be a year apart. On that date you are given those shares at the price of the stock that day. They have no tangible value until the vesting date. If you leave the company before the vesting date that means you walk away from this future compensation.
What Are RSUs Worth to You?
The value of RSUs in your compensation package depend on a few things: the number of shares offered, how well the stock is projected to do and the vesting schedule.
How Much Are Your RSUs Are Worth When Granted?
To understand the current dollar amount of your restricted stock options multiply the number of RSUs by the stock price the day it is granted. When considering a job offer with RSUs, they may provide a dollar amount for RSUs. If you are provided a dollar amount, that means your RSU package will originally be worth that amount no matter what the stock price is. The day the RSU package is granted, you’ll know how many shares equate to that dollar amount.
How Well Do You Think The Stock Will Perform?
Consider how well you think the stock will perform during your vesting schedule. Is it a growth stock or value stock? Here, I’ll compare a growth stock (Amazon) to a value stock (Cisco). On January 1, 2019 Amazon stock was worth $1718.73. In comparison, Cisco was trading at $47.29. On August 21, 2020 Amazon traded at $3,284.72 a share and Cisco traded at $42.25 a share. That is a huge difference! If you had accepted a job offer at Amazon your RSUs are worth almost double! If you accepted the job offer at Cisco your RSUs actually decreased in value. Even with the quarterly dividend of $0.35 a share, your RSUs are still worth less. Note, this is one example of past results, and this doesn’t mean either of these stocks will perform similarly in the future.
When comparing compensation packages at two companies, don’t only look at what the RSU package is worth at that moment in time. Consider how you think the stock will perform over the next few years. The lower RSU package may end up being worth more money.
Amount of Time For All Of Your RSUs to Vest
Know how long it will take for your RSUs to fully vest. How long do you have to stay with the company to get the full RSU package? Do you intend to stay with the company for that amount of time?
When Do You Get Restricted Stock Units?
Typically companies offer RSUs at time of employment. Other opportunities to get RSUs include promotions. Similar to annual merit increases, some companies have annual equity awards. Once a year they give RSUs out to select employees. If you’re unsure if your company offers RSUs, go to your internal benefits page and see if it’s one of the benefits listed. You can also ask your manager or HR business partner. When you’re talking to them, ask them the criteria for getting RSUs. It can never hurt to ask.
Do I get RSU Money Right Away?
Usually you don’t get RSU money right away. RSUs typically have a vesting period. A vesting period is a period of time before the shares are owned by the employee. If you leave the company before the end of the vesting period you’ll walk away from those shares.
Cliff Vesting – after a certain amount of time has passed you will receive 100% of the shares all at once. For example, say you are granted 30 shares. 3 years later you get 30 shares all at once. The date you get all of your shares depends on what is in your RSU agreement.
Graded Vesting – you will receive smaller chunks of your RSUs more frequently. For example, say you are granted 30 shares in January 2021. In graded vesting you could get 10 shares in January 2022, 10 shares in January 2023 and 10 shares in January 2024. The dates you receive the small chunks of RSUs depend on what is in your RSU agreement.
Hybrid of Cliff and Graded Vesting – You receive a certain amount at once, and then smaller amounts at regular intervals following that. The dates you receive a certain amount all at once and the dates following depend on what is in your RSU agreement.
How are RSUs Taxed?
RSUs will not be taxed when you first receive them. But, they will be taxed upon vesting. This is because you were given RSUs at $0 and they converted to the value of the company stock when they vest. Even if the stock goes down the very next day, you will be taxed at the total fair market value of your stock grant on the grant date.
When you sell your RSUs your taxes will be calculated based on the strike price. The strike price is the price of the shares when they become vested. Upon vesting, this is when you get to decide if you want to keep the shares or sell them. Whether you decide to keep or sell the shares, you will get taxed upon the shares vesting.
To avoid getting hit with a huge tax bill your company may have an option to sell RSUs at time of vesting to cover taxes. Additional tax withholding options include same day, net shares settlement, sell to cover and cash.
What Happens if my RSUs go Down in Price After They Vest?
If RSUs go down in price after they vest they will be treated like any other stock that is currently showing a loss. Nothing will actually happen until you sell and the price can continue to go up or down. If you sell at a price that’s below the RSU stock price it will be considered either a short term or long term loss on your taxes pending when you sell.
Do I Have to do Anything When I Get Confirmation I was Awarded RSUs?
Sometimes you do have to do take an action when you get confirmation that you were awarded RSUs. Just because you’ve been told you are getting RSUs doesn’t mean there are no actions on your part. Sometimes you need to accept the RSUs by a certain date or you actually won’t get them! The written confirmation that you get awarding you RSUs should detail out any instructions or next steps you have to take. Make sure you read this written confirmation thoroughly. When you accept the RSUs make sure you know what you are signing, it’s not only about making sure you click accept. Sometimes what you are signing contains a non-compete.
What Are The Drawbacks of Restricted Stock Units?
When you are accepting your Restricted Stock Unit grant, do you know what you are signing? You may be signing a non-compete. If you’ve already signed a non-compete for your employer this agreement may be nothing new. Be aware of what you are signing before you sign. After you sign print a copy for your records in case it’s hard to find after the fact.
Leaving the Company
Restricted Stock Units are designed to incentivize employees to stay at a company. Of course, you can still give your notice that you’re leaving at any time when you have unvested RSUs. However, you’re now putting in notice knowing that you’re leaving money on the table. With vesting, you won’t get the full amount of your award until the vesting schedule is complete (usually 3-4 years). If you get RSU awards every year, that can quickly grow to a sizable amount you’re walking away from. If you leave the company you will forfeit your unvested shares. Any shares that have vested that you haven’t yet sold you will continue to keep.
If you are looking to leave your company, don’t forget to negotiate the amount of unvested RSUs you’d be leaving on the table as part of your negotiation for your new compensation package.
High Risk, High Reward at Startups
Early stage or start-up companies (pre-funding or even after series A) tend to have the valuation of shares as quite low. The opportunity for appreciation is the highest, but there is also a chance your RSUs end up being worth $0.
Ability to Sell RSU Shares Once They Vest
If you work for a publicly traded company you should be able to sell your shares upon the RSUs vesting. If your company is private though, they may have restrictions on when you can sell the equity you’ve been awarded at the company. When you are awarded RSUs, read the terms and what the terms outline for selling vested shares to avoid any surprises.
For quick answers to all Frequently Asked Questions about Restricted Stock Units Fidelity has a FAQ guide that is pretty helpful.