Golden Handcuffs

Daniel Olshansky asked me this question on Twitter:

I don’t believe I have ever addressed this issue here on AVC but I certainly have seen it inside of our highly valued portfolio companies.

Here is the issue. Employees join a high growth company, are issued options which become valuable as the company’s equity appreciates, and if they leave they have to exercise the vested part (and pay taxes) and walk away from the unvested part. So they stay even though they may not be happy at work. Maybe they are not in a challenging role or maybe they find themselves in a problematic management situation. This leads to “resting and vesting.”

Here are some thoughts:

1/ A four year option grant is not a gift. It has to be earned via performance over time, not just time. If there is no performance, then the employee should understand the vesting is at risk. Companies should be very clear about this when they issue the options and on an ongoing basis. This is a cultural issue and needs to be treated as such.

2/ Companies need to have performance oriented cultures where there are frequent checkins between managers and team members, with feedback going both ways, and where non-performance results in changes. These changes could be restructuring of teams, changes in management, or departures of employees. Companies that do not actively manage performance are likely to have lower morale and toxic issues like resting and vesting.

3/ Managers and company leadership must do their part to take ownership of these issues. Employees will adapt to the environment they find themselves in. If you have a rest and vest culture in your company, look in the mirror to see the problem.

4/ I would like to see a market emerge for financing of option exercises. There are companies actively working on this. I believe that departing employees ought to be able to borrow against their valuable equity at no recourse to them, so that they can exercise and pay the taxes. This would solve part of the problem, where employees can’t leave because they can’t afford the taxes (and, in some cases, the exercise price).

5/ I do not believe that the option programs are the problem here. I do think the taxation at exercise is bad public policy and I wish the US government would move taxation to a liquidity event, but I also think we can use the capital markets to address this problem.

6/ I think in the vast majority of cases, the golden handcuff problem is a result of poor management and a leadership team that is unwilling to address this issue head on and make unpopular and difficult decisions about people.

So there you have it Daniel. That’s what I think about this issue. Thank you for asking me about it.