As we receive more requests from entrepreneurs who want to incentivise valued employees in an optimistic effort to either attract top talent, retain top talent or even benefit their business’ BEE status profile, we realised that the motive behind such incentives are not always aligned to the type of incentive instrument that entrepreneurs request. In this blog, we aim to provide you with a basic distinction between two popular incentive instruments, namely the phantom share scheme (“Scheme“) and the employee share ownership plan (“ESOP“) to assist you in electing the best instrument for your valued employees.
PHANTOM SHARE SCHEME
Beneficiaries of a Scheme are awarded notional shares or units (not real shares but rather units giving participant employees the right to certain cash bonuses). The notional shares are linked to the issued shares in the share capital of the company. The Scheme is essentially a cash bonus plan under which the amount of the bonus is measured by reference to the increase in value of the shares in the issued share capital of the company. Such notional shares ordinarily grant the holder the same economic rights and privileges equal to all other actual issued shares in the company on a 1:1 ratio.
Therefore, instead of issuing authorised shares in the share capital of the company, notional shares are created and then awarded to participating employees (with or without vesting conditions). No shares are factually issued or transferred to the employees. Employees do not become actual shareholders of the company. This is illustrated in the fact that they do not receive rights such as ownership rights in the company; rights to inspect records of the company; rights to attend shareholder meetings, nor voting rights – which would result in less control or decision-making influence from beneficiaries. Employees do however, have the opportunity to receive cash bonuses in the actualisation of certain events, such as when profits are declared by the company or any other “liquidity event”.
A Scheme is an excellent tool for attracting top talent and motivating employees who do not have a particularly long serving history with the company. In this respect, the Scheme allows shareholders to retain complete control and ownership of the company. The flexibility of the Scheme ensures that an employee receives a cash-in-hand benefit without enjoying other shareholders rights.
EMPLOYEE SHARE OWNERSHIP PLAN (ESOP)
An ESOP structure allows participating employees to acquire actual shares in the share capital of the company. By virtue of holding actual shares, such employees will become part owners of the company, they will have voting rights in the company (involving them in decision-making) and they will benefit financially when dividends are declared, as well as during an exit or other liquidity events. An ESOP, as opposed to a Scheme, is potentially an excellent instrument for incentivising long standing employees who have material interests in the growth of the company. Our recommendation is that ESOP shares should only be awarded to trusted individuals as holders acquire much more extensive rights, for example, the right to inspect sensitive company documentation and records.
While other complexities may influence your election of setting up and implementing either an ESOP or a Scheme, we recommend that the instrument selected should be guided by each entrepreneur’s true intentions.