Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP)

A stock program that allows participating employees to purchase their organization's stock at a discounted price

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What is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP)?

An employee stock purchase plan (ESPP) refers to a stock program that allows participating employees to purchase their organization’s stock at a discounted price. In some cases, organizations offer stock discounts as high as 15%. Rather than directly purchasing their organization’s stock, participating employees contribute to their plan through automatic payroll deduction.

Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP)


  • An employee stock purchase plan (ESPP) is an organizational-wide stock plan that is offered to employees who meet specific requirements.
  • There are two main types of plans – qualified and non-qualified plans.
  • In order to enroll in an ESPP, it is beneficial to first educate yourself on eligibility, deduction, and taxation.

Qualified Plans vs. Non-Qualified Plans

Generally, organizations offer two forms of employee stock purchase plans – qualified and non-qualified plans.

Qualified Plans

For an organizational-run qualified plan to be implemented, they must receive the approval of shareholders. Also, all qualified plan participants have equal rights, there must be restrictions on the maximum discount offered, and the offering period cannot surpass three years.

Non-Qualified Plans

Conversely, non-qualified plans are not subject to as many limitations as qualified plans. However, non-qualified plans have less desirable tax implications compared to qualified plans.

ESPP Process

Discussed below is the employee stock purchase plan process from beginning to end.

  1. Enrollment Period: The enrollment period is the period of time where you can choose to either enroll or deny entry into the purchase plan.
  2. Offering Date: The offering date is the period when payroll deductions begin.
  3. Offering Period: The offering period is an extension of the offering date. The extension can be as long as a maximum of 27 months.
  4. Purchase Period: The purchase period is a subset of the offering period that generally occurs every six months.
  5. Purchase Date: The purchase date is the final day of the purchasing period. It is when payroll contributions are used to buy organizational stocks.

ESPP Eligibility

Organizational employees must first be eligible to participate in employee stock purchase plans. Listed below are some of the restrictions regarding eligibility.

  • Cannot participate in an ESPP if an employee owns more than 5% of the company’s stock.
  • Must be employed with the company for a specific period of time. (e.g., 1 to 2 years).
  • ESPPs are a benefit. Employees are not obligated to participate in them.
  • Participants who meet requirements cannot be disallowed plan involvement.

ESPP Deductions

Participating employees must be aware of income allocation in regard to employee stock purchase plans. Listed below are some of the methods money is contributed to the plan.

  • Participating employees state the amount of money they want to be deducted from their monthly or yearly payroll.
  • Payroll deductions accumulate between the offering date and the purchase date.
  • Once the participating employee reaches the purchase date, the organization uses the employee’s accumulated funds to purchase their company’s stock.
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that payroll contribution cannot exceed $25,000 per calendar year.

Taxation of ESPPs

The taxation of employee stock purchase plans can be extremely complex. Listed below are some of the key points to keep in mind.

  • Original stock price discounts are generally taxed as ordinary income tax.
  • The capital gain due to the discounted price is taxed as a long-term capital gain.
  • Favorable tax treatment is given if the stock is sold at least one year after the
  • acquisition date and two years after the offering date.
  • Qualifying dispositions are reported as ordinary income (discount allocated) and as a long-term capital gain (the remainder beyond the discount allocated).

Advantages of Employee Stock Purchase Plans

Listed below are the advantages of participating in an employee stock purchase plan.

  • Discounted prices on organizational stocks.
  • Employee stock purchase plans are simple and easy to enroll in.
  • Alignment of interest between employees and shareholders.
  • Increase in employee effort and motivation so that the company may succeed.
  • Increase in employee morale, loyalty, and retention.
  • Participants get a sense of organizational pride.
  • If the company succeeds, so do the employees.

ESPP Advantages and Disadvantages

Disadvantages of Employee Stock Purchase Plans

Listed below are the disadvantages of participating in an employee stock purchase plan.

  • If the share price decreases, employee morale, and motivation may decrease.
  • Ensuring the ESPP follows security and tax law guidelines can be challenging.
  • A large amount of HR functions goes into administering the stock purchase plan.
  • There are legal, tax, and administrative issues that go into setting up the plan.

Additional Resources

CFI is the official provider of the global Commercial Banking & Credit Analyst (CBCA)™ certification program, designed to help anyone become a world-class financial analyst. To keep advancing your career, the additional CFI resources below will be useful:

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