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Employee Stock Purchase Plan: How It Works and What It Is

Employee Stock Purchase Plan: How It Works and What It Is

March 18, 2023

Employee Stock Purchase Plan: How It Works and What It Is

We have heard about stocks, and we know money revolves around them. But the question arises how does an employee stock purchase plan work? In many ways, stocks can make you wealthy, like holding periods, diversifying stock options, etc. This piece will provide you with all the information on how an employee stock purchase plan work. 

Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs) are becoming more common as companies seek ways to reward their employees. Employees can buy company stock at a discount through payroll deductions under stock purchase plans. 

Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs) allow employees to invest in their companies while earning a return. In this article, we'll review how ESPPs work, their benefits, and what you should think about if you join one. ESPPs can assist investors of all levels in making sound financial decisions.

We'll review employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs), from how they work to what you should think about if you decide to join one. We'll review ESPP eligibility, contribution limits, and how to use your savings. ESPPs have disadvantages and risks, such as financial loss if the company's stock price falls. 

After reading this article, you should better understand what an ESPP is, how it works, and whether it is a good investment.

What is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan?

Some businesses provide discounted employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs). Employees can invest in and profit from their company through an ESPP.

An ESPP usually necessitates full- or part-time employment at the company that provides it. Participation may necessitate a period with the company. Some employers restrict plan participation to specific job titles or levels.

ESPPs are either qualified or unqualified. The IRS oversees qualified ESPPs. Under these plans, employees can purchase discounted company stock without paying taxes until they sell it. Qualified ESPPs limit the number of stock employees can purchase and the time they must hold it before selling it.

Non-qualified ESPPs are not subject to IRS regulations. These plans do not provide tax advantages like qualified ESPPs, but employees can purchase and sell more stock. Non-qualified ESPPs can be offered to more employees than qualified plans. Employee stock discounts, on the other hand, are immediately taxed.

How Does an Employee Stock Purchase Plan Work?

The purchase period, offering period, and purchase price of ESPPs are critical. Employees can use their savings to purchase discounted company stock during the purchase period. During the offering period, employees can join the ESPP and begin contributing. Employees can purchase stock at a discount to the market price.

Payroll deductions from employees fund the ESPP. These contributions are used to purchase discounted company stock after the offering period. Employees can sell their shares from their brokerage account at any time.

The tax implications of ESPPs are complicated. The purchase price discount in a qualified ESPP is not taxed until the shares are sold, at which point capital gains tax applies. A non-qualified ESPP discount is immediately taxable as ordinary income. Employees should carefully consider the tax implications of an ESPP and, if necessary, seek the advice of a tax professional.

Advantages of Employee Stock Purchase Plans

Participating in an ESPP can offer several benefits to employees, including the following:

  • Stock Purchasing at Discount: Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs) give employees a 10-15% discount on company stock. Employees can purchase more stock in the company for the same price as on the open market, potentially increasing returns.
  • Capital Gains: Long-term capital gains are taxed lower than short-term gains if an employee holds onto the purchased shares for more than a year. Employees may save more tax.
  • Aligning Interests: ESPPs can align the interests of employees with those of the company, as employees become partial owners of the company and are more likely to work towards its success.
  • Simple Enrollment Process: ESPPs often have a straightforward enrollment process, with automatic payroll deductions and a simple online enrollment system. This makes it easy for employees to participate in the plan.
  • No Investment Experience Required: ESPPs can be a good option for employees with little investment experience, as the plan is often simple and requires little to no active management.
  • Lower Tax Rates: Qualified ESPPs offer tax benefits, such as deferred taxation on the discount, which can result in lower employee tax rates.
  • Long-Term Savings: ESPPs encourage employees to save for the long term, as the shares are often subject to a holding period before they can be sold.
  • Company Loyalty: ESPPs can foster a sense of loyalty to the company as employees become more invested in the company's success and may be less likely to leave for another job opportunity.

Employee Stock Purchase Plans Drawbacks

While Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) can offer several benefits, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider:

  • Investment Risk: ESPPs can carry investment risk, as the company's stock's value may decrease. If the employee has invested a significant portion of their portfolio in company stock through the ESPP, they may be more exposed to market volatility.
  • Lack of Diversification: ESPPs can also create a lack of diversification in an employee's investment portfolio, as they may be heavily invested in one company's stock. This lack of diversification can increase risk if the company's stock performs poorly.
  • Limited Stock Availability: The number of shares available for purchase through an ESPP may be limited, restricting an employee's ability to participate in the plan or purchase as many shares as they would like.
  • Participation Restrictions: ESPPs may have participation restrictions, such as requiring employees to work for the company for a certain period before being eligible to participate. This can limit the benefits of the plan for some employees.
  • Tax Consequences: While ESPPs can offer tax benefits, they can also result in tax consequences, particularly for non-qualified plans where the discount on the purchase price is taxed as ordinary income.
  • Inability to Sell Stock Immediately: Employees may be subject to holding periods before they can sell the purchased shares, limiting their ability to access the cash value of their investment.
  • Company Performance: If the company's stock performs poorly, employees who have invested in the company through the ESPP may experience losses.

How to Maximize the Benefits of an Employee Stock Purchase Plan

Maximizing the benefits of an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) can assist employees in taking advantage of the plan's potential returns and tax benefits. Employees can use several strategies to maximize their ESPP benefits, including:

  • Contributing the maximum amount allowed: Employees can maximize their ESPP benefits by contributing the maximum amount allowed under the plan, which can increase the amount of stock they can purchase at a discounted price.
  • Holding shares for the long term: Alternatively, employees can choose to hold on to their purchased shares for the long term, potentially benefiting from future increases in the stock price and lower tax rates on capital gains.
  • Selling shares immediately: Employees can sell their purchased shares immediately after the purchase period ends, allowing them to lock in the discounted purchase price and potentially realize immediate gains.
  • Diversifying their portfolio: To manage risk, employees can consider diversifying their portfolio by investing in other assets outside of the ESPP, such as mutual funds or exchange-traded funds.
  • Maximizing tax benefits: For qualified ESPPs, employees can maximize their tax benefits by holding their purchased shares for at least one year after the purchase period ends, qualifying them for long-term capital gains tax rates.

Contribute the Maximum Amount

Contribution limits for Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) vary. Employees can contribute a percentage of their salary to the plan up to a maximum dollar amount per year.

Employees benefit from making the maximum ESPP contribution. It may increase profits by allowing employees to purchase more discounted stock. Contributing the maximum amount allows employees to take advantage of plan tax advantages such as deferring taxation on the discount until the shares are sold.

Employees can budget their ESPP contributions through payroll automation. This ensures consistent contributions without the need for employee intervention. To accommodate the ESPP contribution, employees can reduce discretionary spending or retirement account contributions.

Employees should consider their financial situation and contribution ability before deciding on a contribution amount. Contributing the maximum amount has advantages, but not all employees can. Employees should also consider the limits on ESPP stock purchases and the tax implications.

Monitor Stock Performance

Participants in an ESPP should monitor the company's stock to manage investment risk and make informed share purchases and sales. Employees can stay current on stock performance by reading news releases, financial reports, and the company's website. Monitoring economic trends and industry news may also help the company's stock price.

Employees can track stock performance using real-time stock quotes, news, and analysis from Yahoo Finance, Google Finance, and CNBC. Mobile trading platforms and market news are also available from Robinhood, E*TRADE, and TD Ameritrade. Employees can manage their ESPP participation and investment risk by staying current on company news and stock performance.

Diversify Investments

Diversification of investments reduces investment risk, particularly in an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP), where employees may hold a large amount of company stock. Employees can reduce market volatility and company-specific risk by diversifying their portfolios across asset classes, sectors, and regions.

Employees can diversify their portfolios outside the ESPP by investing in mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and stocks. Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) offer investors a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, and commodities.

Employees can keep their portfolios balanced by investing in assets that match their investment objectives, risk tolerance, and time horizon. Examples include stocks, bonds, real estate, and commodities. Investing in stocks and bonds, which behave differently depending on market conditions, can also help to reduce risk.

Sell Shares After the Holding Period

Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) necessitate that employees hold shares before selling them. The terms of an ESPP vary, but the holding period is typically one to two years.

Employees can sell their shares anytime after the holding period has ended. Employees can lock in profits and gains by selling shares after the expired holding period. Selling shares after the holding period may qualify the employee for lower long-term capital gains tax rates than short-term capital gains tax rates.

When selling strategically, employees can consider tax implications, market conditions, and stock prices. To maximize employee returns, consult a financial advisor or a tax professional before selling shares.

Sell shares after the holding period to maximize ESPP benefits. Employees can maximize their profits by carefully planning the timing and tax implications of selling their stock.

Consult with a Financial Advisor

Participants in an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) new to investing or tax law may benefit from consulting with a financial advisor. Tax planning, investment strategy, and risk management are all areas where financial advisors can help.

Financial advisors can assist ESPP participants in determining the appropriate contribution amount, developing a diversified investment strategy, and capitalizing on long-term capital gains rates. Following the holding period, a financial advisor can assist employees in determining when to sell and how to minimize tax implications.

Employees can ask friends and family for recommendations or look for reputable financial advisors through industry organizations such as the Financial Planning Association or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Employees should also look for advisors with industry credentials such as CFP or CFA, as these show a commitment to professional standards and ethics.

Financial advisors can help ESPP participants make informed investment decisions and maximize plan benefits. Employees who work with a trusted advisor on investment strategy and tax planning can maximize their ESPP participation and achieve their financial goals.

Avoid Concentrated Positions

Investing too much in a stock that performs poorly or is affected by company-specific events can pose significant investment risk. Diversifying investments across assets reduces risk and aids in achieving long-term financial objectives.

Employees can avoid concentrated positions by limiting their net worth invested in their company's stock. A general rule of thumb is limiting exposure to any stock to 10% of one's net worth. This can assist employees in diversifying their portfolios and avoiding overinvestment in a single asset.

Employees can diversify outside the ESPP by investing in mutual funds or ETFs. This lowers market volatility as well as company-specific risk.

Diversifying investments reduces risk and aids in the achievement of financial objectives. Diversifying across asset classes and avoiding concentrated stock positions can help employees reduce risk and maximize ESPP benefits.

Use Automatic Contributions

Employees can benefit from automatic Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) contributions. It can aid in the maintenance of plan contributions without the need for manual intervention, potentially increasing participation and returns. Employees can budget for and prioritize the ESPP with automatic contributions.

Employees can set up automatic ESPP contributions through the HR portal or payroll system. This may include specifying the contribution amount or salary percentage, as well as the start and end dates of the contribution period.

Employees may need to adjust their contributions during financial hardship or stock price fluctuations. Employees can modify their contribution amount or percentage, as well as their start date, via the HR portal or payroll system.

Automatic ESPP contributions can assist employees in maximizing plan participation and meeting long-term financial goals. By monitoring and adjusting contributions, employees can align their ESPP participation with their financial plan and investment strategy.

Keep Records

Participants in an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) must keep records to track their contributions, purchase price, and holding period to receive accurate tax reporting. This information can calculate share sales gains or losses and ESPP tax implications.

Employees must keep track of their ESPP purchase contributions, prices, and holding periods. Employees may want to keep track of dividends and sales as well.

Employees can organize records using spreadsheets or software. This ensures that all necessary information is consistently, accurately tracked, and accessible for tax reporting or other purposes.

Employees should keep records for at least the holding period if they intend to keep the shares. Keeping accurate records assists employees in avoiding tax reporting errors and making informed ESPP decisions.


This article investigated the growing popularity of Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) in today's business world. The definition, function, and eligibility requirements of ESPPs and the distinctions between qualified and non-qualified ESPPs were all discussed.

We discussed the fundamentals of ESPPs, their benefits and drawbacks, and how employees can make the most of their plans. We stressed the importance of keeping track of your stock, spreading your bets, and consulting with a financial planner. Finally, we discussed why keeping accurate records is critical for ESPP participants.

Diddel & Diddel can assist you in maximizing the potential of your ESPP while minimizing your risk exposure. We offer full financial planning and investment management services to help our clients achieve their long-term financial goals. 

Diddel & Diddel financial advisors can advise on various financial issues, including ESPP enrollment, tax preparation, investment strategies, etc. If you'd like to learn more about how we can assist you with your ESPP participation or other financial planning needs, please contact us today for a consultation.

Our consultancy is free, and we always take care of your needs. 

Contact: 203.708.9033