What Is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)?

An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) is an employee benefit plan that gives workers ownership interest in the company. ESOPs give the sponsoring company, the selling shareholder, and participants receive various tax benefits, making them qualified plans. Companies often use ESOPs as a corporate-finance strategy and to align the interests of their employees with those of their shareholders.

Key Takeaways

  • An employee stock ownership plan gives workers ownership interest in the company.
  • ESOP is usually formed to allow employees the opportunity to buy stock in a closely held company to facilitate succession planning.
  • ESOPs encourage employees to do what's best for shareholders since the employees themselves are shareholders and provide companies with tax benefits thus incentivizing owners to offer them to employees.
  • Companies typically tie distributions from the plan to vesting.

Understanding Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP)

An ESOP is usually formed to facilitate succession planning in a closely held company by allowing employees the opportunity to buy stock. ESOPs are set up as trust funds and can be funded by companies putting newly issued shares into them, putting cash in to buy existing company shares, or borrowing money through the entity to buy company shares.

Since ESOP shares are part of employees' remuneration package, companies can use ESOPs to keep plan participants focused on corporate performance and share price appreciation. By giving plan participants an interest in seeing the company's stock perform well, these plans supposedly encourage participants to do what's best for shareholders, since the participants themselves are shareholders. Companies often provide employees with such ownership with no upfront costs. The company may hold the provided shares in a trust for safety and growth until the employee retires or resigns from the company. Companies typically tie distributions from the plan to vesting — the proportion of shares earned for each year of service — and when an employee leaves the company, 

After becoming fully vested the company "purchases" the vested shares from the retiring or resigning employee. The money from the purchase goes to the employee in a lump sum or equal periodic payments, depending on the plan. Once the company purchases the shares and pays the employee, the company redistributes or voids the shares. Employees who resign or retire cannot take the shares of stock with them, only the cash payment. Fired employees often only qualify for the amount they have vested in the plan.

Employee-owned corporations are companies with majority holdings held by their own employees. These organizers are like cooperatives, except that the company does not distribute its capital equally. Many of these companies only provide voting rights to particular shareholders. Companies may also give senior employees the benefit of more shares compared to new employees.

ESOP and Other Forms of Employee Ownership

Stock ownership plans provide packages that act as additional benefits for employees to prevent hostility and keep a specific corporate culture that company managements want to maintain.

Other versions of employee ownership include direct-purchase programs, stock options, restricted stock, phantom stock, and stock appreciation rights. Direct-purchase plans let employees purchase shares of their respective companies with their personal after-tax money. Some countries provide special tax-qualified plans that let employees purchase company stock at discounted prices. Restricted stock gives the employees the right to receive shares as a gift or a purchased item after meeting particular restrictions, such as working for a specific period or hitting specific performance targets. Stock options provide employees the opportunity to buy shares at a fixed price for a set period. Phantom stock provides cash bonuses for good employee performance. These bonuses equate to the value of a particular number of shares. Stock appreciation rights give employees the right to raise the value of an assigned number of shares. Companies usually pay these shares in cash.