One way to reward employees
One strategy companies use to reward employees is to give them options to purchase a certain amount of the company’s stock for a fixed price after a defined period of time. The hope is that by the time the employee’s options vest—that is, at the time the employee can actually exercise the options to buy stock at the set price—that the market price of the stock will have risen, so the employee gets the stock for less than the current market price.
If you’re an executive, some of the options you receive from your employer may be Nonqualified Stock Options. These are options that don’t qualify for the more-favorable tax treatment given to Incentive Stock Options. In this article, you’ll learn the tax implications of exercising nonqualified stock options.
Let’s assume that you receive options on stock that is actively traded on an established market such as the NASDAQ, but that the options themselves aren’t traded. The tax catch is that when you exercise the options to purchase stock (but not before), you have taxable income equal to the difference between the stock price set by the option and the market price of the stock. In tax lingo, that's called the compensation element.