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3 quick tips for streamlining your stock-based pay plans

Keep your employees motivated with stock-based compensation, the thinking goes, and you will be rewarded with high productivity and gains in your company’s growth track. What managers often fail to consider is that if they make mistakes along the way—and we’ve seen many when it comes to equity-based compensation plans—they could actually end up with low employee morale, putting a crimp in the pace of the performance-aligned goals they have set up.

Whenever a company has to amend awards previously made or restate their financial statements because of adjustments in equity-based comp, employees will naturally have concerns—even when the change has little, if any, financial impact on them.

The risk of dents in morale is just one of many consequences RoseRyan has observed while helping clients with issues in their equity-based pay strategies. You’d be amazed at the range of problems we have seen—many of them due to honest mistakes. In our experience, 9 out of 10 companies have had some issue with their underlying stock data that affects their stock-based compensation expense.

To prevent such problems at your company, consider these three tips the next time you evaluate your stock-based compensation strategy (we’ll get into more detail about this topic at our February 26 luncheon called Compensation for Private Companies: The Ins and Outs of Equity, which will be held at BayBio with Kyle Holm, associate partner at compensation consulting firm Radford).

Be obsessive about looking for modifications: Some modifications are obvious (say, repricing a stock option); some modifications are less so (say, allowing a consultant to keep options after you hire that person as an employee). Keep an eye out not only for board decisions but also for management decisions, material transactions, and liquidity events. The rule is, any change to the award or the award holder’s status should trigger consideration of accounting modifications.

Identifying that you have a modification is just the first challenge; the accounting can be tricky as well. How you account for the modification will depend on the type of modification. Variations include measuring the incremental value only, accelerating the expense, or valuing the new award and reversing the value associated with the original award. You also need to be sure you’re entering the modification in your equity system in a way that captures the appropriate modification accounting.

Make sure performance-based awards are on everyone’s radar: Performance-based awards are great tools for both retaining employees and motivating goal-driven behavior. But there is accounting risk here as well. With performance-based awards, companies must assess the probability of achieving the metrics at each reporting date and adjust the expense accordingly. This step often doesn’t happen. Maybe the board minutes lay out the performance goals associated with an award, but the stock administrator gets only a spreadsheet of grants to administer, with no indication that vesting is contingent. Or maybe the stock administrator is aware of the performance targets but doesn’t flag performance-based grants in the equity system, so the accounting team doesn’t know they exist. Such miscommunication can lead to overstated stock-based compensation expense.

Tie your 409A valuations to major grant dates: For private companies, the rule of thumb is to obtain a 409A valuation of your stock at least once a year, and in conjunction with major events such as financings, significant transactions, or material changes to the business. Some companies instead tend to do their 409A at the end of the year, just because they’re doing other valuations and financial decompressions at the same time. But think about this example, from one of our clients that approved a major grant to executives and employees in June 2011, six months after valuing its common stock at $1.25 per share for its annual 409A. By that point, the value of the stock had increased significantly—to $3—based on several design wins and other economic factors. While that’s a nice problem to have, they suddenly faced additional stock-based compensation expense and time-consuming updates to their equity system, among other issues.

It’s easy to think your equity-based compensation is under control; however, we have found time and again that it’s an ever-evolving tool that needs tending to, as your headcount grows, the complexity of your company expands, and situations evolve.

Get in the mode of reevaluating your pay strategy during the RoseRyan February 26 Lunch & Learn seminar about equity in South San Francisco. It will be geared toward private companies. Click here to register. And for more details about these best practices as well as some others to consider, also check out the RoseRyan intelligence report I wrote called Stock options: do you have a problem?.

Kelley Wall leads RoseRyan’s Technical Accounting Group, which provides technical accounting and SEC expertise to public and private companies on complex accounting matters and implementation of new accounting pronouncements. 

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