Stock-based comp? What else you got?
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Stock-based comp? What else you got?

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Good morning! Companies that were once giving out stock-based comp like it was candy now need to find alternative ways to woo employees. And that could lead to a more chaotic job market.

A harsh reality lesson

The talent war was already brutal. Now, as Wall Street punishes once high-flying technology stocks, it’s bound to get even more intense.

For decades, Big Tech has embraced stock-based compensation as a supplement to take-home pay. And workers, eager to be early members of the next Microsoft or Salesforce to reap the financial windfall that comes with that, have progressively embraced it as a meaningful portion of their compensation. It made it possible for even lower-level workers to, eventually, become millionaires.

But as share prices plummet, those same employees are getting a harsh lesson about the reality of the stock market. And it’s forcing employers to make tough decisions about their compensation strategies.

  • Stock-based pay is a common lure for employees to work in tech. Many startup employees accept lower pay in exchange for larger equity packages, hoping their pre-IPO stock makes them the next gazillionaire. And at most public companies, RSUs help supplement larger cash salaries.
  • Tying large packages of stock compensation has become so common, it earned the nickname “golden handcuffs,” thanks to most awards being tied to four-year vesting cliffs. That, however, is changing.
  • Now, as stocks sink, the challenge for tech companies is that the golden payday has lost its sheen.

With the stock market largely ballooning over the last decade, it was a relatively low-risk way to seemingly make a large chunk of money. Basically, if you picked right, someone could hop to a new company every handful of years and make a big nest egg.

  • But now, particularly for those employees who may have joined companies at or near the peak, many could be facing a situation where their on-paper compensation is now significantly lower thanks to the turmoil on Wall Street.
  • RSUs may offer some amount of downside protection — although it won't feel like much comfort to many.
  • Employees who have stock options may have exercised them at a higher price than what the stock is trading at today, finding themselves underwater. With RSUs, it's at least worth something, but if you believed you had been given $100 only to find it's $20 now, you may be upset.

The phenomenon could lead to an even more chaotic job market. Not only will it likely force workers to depart to another company and start from scratch with new equity, it could lead to an exodus from startups that are often able to woo talent through stock-based pay if potential employees think there’s no upside left.

  • “It changes the paradigm,” Temple University accounting professor Steven Balsam told me. “If I’ve only got stock options and they’re now underwater, I can just go to the company across the street, maybe get the same salary, but get a fresh set of stock options that are at the money. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Workers shouldn’t expect the employers to help. In a time when share prices are already on the decline, CEOs are likely to be hesitant to take any actions that could further dilute their stock and risk angering investors.

  • Such a move to change employee share prices or issue more options could also put executives in the difficult position of needing to respond to wild fluctuations in the stock market in the future.

What might end up being more common are one-time cash bonuses, which would affect underlying profits at a critical time. But it’s a more straightforward way for companies to support employees battered by skyrocketing inflation.

  • “When you see such a rapid and such an extreme distortion of a market, you don't necessarily respond right away,” Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson said. “You want to be slow-and-steady. If the market distortion is prolonged and looks permanent, you want to be on that path. But if it’s a gyration up and then a gyration way back down, you don't want to necessarily be following.”

Compensation has long been a hot topic in tech. But it’s become more pronounced in the past few years. The talent war has forced businesses to increasingly dangle more lucrative offers in front of data scientists and other individuals with hard-to-find skills.

  • Historically, startups have had a harder time competing with public firms on cash salaries, prompting many to instead opt for big, pre-IPO equity packages.
  • In the last few years, that has changed. After tons of free money flooded into the U.S. economy, an insane amount went into private startups so they could offer lucrative cash salaries along with stock. However, that could now become a major problem.
  • “The private companies who said, ‘We are going to hire a ton of people, we are going to pay well beyond market cash,’ those companies are all hoarding their cash now because they know the next time they have to go to the market they are going to be looking at down rounds, if they can raise a round at all,” Lawson said. “So those huge salaries, they are probably regretting them.”

The most pressing risk for Big Tech might be that workers opt to depart the industry entirely. Everyone — including banks, retailers and manufacturers — is trying to hire software and IT talent right now. Of course, most companies are getting battered in the stock market. But if tech continues to sink, it’s a prime time for firms like JPMorgan Chase or Walmart to try to poach employees.

Either way, workers once again are put in a position of power. And they should use it to milk these corporate giants — many of which have put profits above all else for decades — for all the money they can.

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