It is very typical that options and RSUs that are issued to new employees upon joining a company will have “one year cliff vesting.” This means that the first year of vesting into your options or RSUs will not happen until you have completed one entire year. After that vesting usually happens quarterly or monthly.
I am a fan of cliff vesting because if either the employee or the company made a mistake and the employment ends quickly, no equity has been spent on it.
But there are a couple of caveats that come with cliff vesting that I think should be understood by everyone.
The first is that while the letter of the agreement will say that the first year of vesting is not earned until the anniversary of the grant, if employment is terminated by the employer for anything other than cause within a few weeks or even months of the first anniversary, some accommodation should be made for the vesting upon termination. It is hard to put this in writing for a whole host of reasons, but best practice is for the employer to make some adjustment if the termination is close to the cliff vesting date.
The second point is that many companies include a cliff vesting provision in retention grants. These are grants that existing employees get to supplement the sign-on grant and help with longer-term retention. I do not believe it is appropriate to put cliff vesting into retention grants. The very fact that an employee is getting a retention grant suggests that the match has been a good one for both the employee and the employer and that the cliff provision is not necessary.
Many companies, particularly younger companies without experienced and sophisticated HR organizations, don’t understand these nuances and don’t factor them into their equity compensation programs. That is a mistake and it harms both the employees and the employer because a fair and equitable equity compensation program is of great value to a company.