Stock Options and Employee Compensation

Understanding Stock Options: A Gateway to Wealth Creation

If you've ever come across the term "stock options" and felt lost in translation, you're not alone. Many people find the concept intimidating, especially when they're just starting out in the world of finance. So, what exactly are stock options?

Stock options are contracts that offer you the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a stock at a predetermined price within a certain timeframe. Essentially, they grant you the option to transact, giving you a level of flexibility that is not available with traditional stock purchases. Now, let's delve deeper into this fascinating financial instrument.

The Dual Nature: Different Types of Stock Options

Stock options broadly fall into two categories: Call Options and Put Options.

Call Options

A call option gives you the right to buy shares at a predetermined price, also known as the strike price. This can be incredibly profitable if the market price rises above the strike price within the option period. For instance, if you have a call option with a strike price of $50, and the market price rises to $60, you can buy the shares for $50 and sell them at the higher market price, pocketing the difference.

Put Options

On the other hand, a put option gives you the right to sell shares at a predetermined price. This can prove beneficial if the market price falls below the strike price within the option period. If you hold a put option with a strike price of $50, and the market price falls to $40, you can buy the shares in the open market at the lower price and sell them for the higher strike price, thus making a profit.

The difference between call and put options offers investors a flexible tool for hedging and speculation, catering to various market expectations and investment strategies.

How Are Stock Options Taxed?

Taxes on stock options can be a complex field, adding a layer of difficulty to this already nuanced financial instrument. However, understanding how stock options are taxed is vital, as it can significantly impact your overall returns.

When you exercise a stock option, the difference between the market price and the strike price (referred to as the 'bargain element') is considered income and taxed accordingly. If you choose to hold onto the stocks after exercising the option, any further gains or losses are considered capital gains or losses and are subject to different tax rates.

It's also important to note that the taxation of stock options varies based on whether they're classified as Non-Qualified Stock Options (NQSOs) or Incentive Stock Options (ISOs). While NQSOs are taxed at your regular income tax rate, ISOs offer more favorable tax treatment, though they come with more stringent rules for eligibility and exercise.

The Trade-Offs: Advantages and Disadvantages of Stock Options

Just like any investment tool, stock options come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Just like any investment tool, stock options come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.


One of the most significant advantages of stock options is the potential for high returns. Stock options can offer amplified profits compared to traditional stock investing, especially in volatile markets.

Moreover, stock options can act as a powerful hedge against risk. For instance, an investor worried about a potential drop in the price of stocks they own might buy put options to cover potential losses.


However, the high reward potential of stock options comes with an equally high risk. If the stock price does not move as anticipated, the options could expire worthless, leading to a total loss of the investment.

Furthermore, the complexity of stock options, including their pricing models and tax implications, can be overwhelming for beginner investors.

A Step-by-Step Guide: How to Exercise Stock Options

Exercising stock options simply means activating your right to buy or sell the stock at the strike price. Here are the basic steps to do so:

1) Determine the status of your stock options: Before anything else, you need to find out if your options are vested. Stock options usually come with a vesting schedule, which means you earn the right to exercise the options over time. If your options are unvested, you won't be able to exercise them.

2) Consider the market price: Once your options are vested, compare the market price of the stock to your strike price. If you hold call options, you want the market price to be higher than the strike price. If you hold put options, you're looking for the market price to be lower.

3) Exercise your options: If it's profitable to do so, you can exercise your options. This typically involves notifying the brokerage firm that handles your options and following their procedure.

4) Decide what to do with the stock: After exercising the options, you can choose to hold onto the stock or sell it.

Remember, it's essential to consider the tax implications before exercising your options, as the resulting income might push you into a higher tax bracket.

Stock Options as Compensation: A Tool for Wealth Creation

More and more companies are using stock awards as a form of compensation, particularly for executives. This form of stock-based compensation can align the interests of employees with shareholders, as employees benefit directly from the company's success.

For individuals, this represents an opportunity for wealth creation and retirement planning. When these options vest, employees can exercise them and potentially earn substantial profits if the company has performed well.

However, it's worth noting that this form of compensation is not without risk. If the company does not perform as expected, the options may have little to no value. Therefore, it's essential to have a diversified portfolio and not rely solely on stock awards for retirement savings.

Stock-Based Compensation: A Dynamic Approach to Employee Reward

In recent decades, corporations have been increasingly using stock-based compensation to reward and retain their employees. This approach creates an incentive structure that aligns the interests of employees and shareholders. As employees become shareholders themselves, their personal financial success becomes intertwined with that of the company, motivating them to contribute to the company's long-term success.

But what exactly is stock-based compensation? And what different forms does it take in corporate America? Let's take a deep dive into the subject.

Stock Options

One of the most prevalent forms of stock-based compensation is the stock option, which grants employees the right, but not the obligation, to purchase a certain number of company shares at a predetermined price, known as the strike price. There are two types of stock options commonly used: Non-Qualified Stock Options (NQSOs) and Incentive Stock Options (ISOs).

NQSOs are more widely used and have fewer restrictions. However, they do not offer the same tax advantages as ISOs. When an employee exercises NQSOs, the difference between the market price and the strike price is taxed as regular income.

ISOs, on the other hand, offer significant tax benefits. If held for a specific period, any profits made from the sale of the stock are taxed as long-term capital gains, which generally have a lower tax rate than regular income. However, ISOs have stricter rules around eligibility and exercise.

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) are another popular form of stock-based compensation. Unlike stock options, which require the employee to purchase the stock, RSUs represent ownership of actual shares that are granted outright to the employee. However, these shares are subject to vesting, meaning the employee will only receive them after a specified period or upon meeting certain performance milestones.

The advantage of RSUs over stock options lies in their inherent value. Even if the company’s stock price falls, RSUs will always have some value, whereas stock options can become worthless if the stock price falls below the strike price.

Performance Shares

Performance shares are company stocks awarded to employees only if certain company-wide performance metrics are achieved, such as earnings per share (EPS) targets or return on equity (ROE) goals. These create a direct link between the employee's reward and the company's performance, thereby promoting alignment with the company's strategic objectives.

Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs)

Finally, Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) are programs that allow employees to purchase company shares, often at a discount, through payroll deductions. While not directly granted as compensation, they offer an affordable way for employees to become shareholders and benefit from the company's success.

Stock-based compensation has become an integral part of remuneration structures in corporate America. These programs not only provide employees with potential financial gains, but also foster a culture of ownership and alignment with the company's objectives. Each form of stock-based compensation comes with its own benefits and considerations, making it crucial for employees to understand them fully to make the most of these opportunities.

William Bevins is a licensed financial advisor in Spring Hill, TN with over 25 years of experience in financial advice and investment experience. As a Private Wealth Manager, he aims to help individuals and businesses achieve their financial goals through financial, diversified wealth management services, and retirement planning. To learn more or book a consultation, contact us today.

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With over 18 years of investing experience, William Bevins serves as a Private Wealth Manager. His goal remains to help individuals and institutions achieve their investment goals while controlling risk. Putting client needs first is how he built his business and reputation. Serving as a Fiduciary with Cypress Capital allows him to stand with those who count the most, his clients.