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The trend to let employees select how much of comp is salary vs equity.

Me? I'm going will 90% equity because I plan to eventually sell the Report to CNBC.


A Perk to Getting These Jobs: You Pick Your Pay

Some companies are asking new hires to customize their compensation with different mixes of salary and equity


By Tara Weiss, WSK

Updated Jan. 1, 2023 9:34 am ET



When George Melvin clinched a job as lead software engineer at Unlearn.ai this past summer, the company made him two offers.


In the first, the base salary made up 70% of total compensation, with the rest in equity, he says. The other was 58% salary, 42% equity. Confused, he asked the San Francisco startup’s human resources department if the twin offers were a negotiating tactic.


They weren’t. Unlearn, which uses artificial intelligence to speed clinical trials, recently began offering new hires multiple pay options. It’s among a growing number of companies that let new hires customize their compensation with different combinations of salary, equity and, in some cases, benefits.


Netflix Inc. has long let employees choose how much of their pay they want in salary versus stock options. Many employers now adopting personalized comp packages are smaller firms competing for talent against bigger companies, particularly after a 32% drop in the technology-heavy Nasdaq index this year and a retrenchment in tech spending and startup investment.


The customized approach reflects a wider push among businesses to give staff a say in their work situations, from experimenting with shorter workweeks to trading vacation time for money. Like Unlearn, many of those letting recruits pick their pay also give employees the option to work remotely.


This fall, SAC Health System, a community healthcare group with 11 sites in Southern California, began letting its nearly 570 employees cash out unused paid time off to put toward a number of options, including student-loan repayments, retirement savings, health savings accounts and even travel. Staff make the trade via a service provider called PTO Exchange, which handles the administrative and tax-compliance issues of paying out unused vacation time for the employer.


In December, Carta, a management platform for startups, their employees and investors to track and manage equities, began offering corporate clients a template from which their prospective hires can select three compensation options. It includes an interactive sliding scale that lets recruits calculate how total compensation could fare if they opt for, say, more equity versus salary.


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Carta says it got the idea from client Civic Eagle, a primarily remote-work company that has been giving new hires a choice of varying stock-equity combinations since 2019. Recruits sometimes worried that being given options might be a trick to shortchange them, says Damola Ogundipe, chief executive of Civic Eagle, which uses AI to discover, track and analyze public policy.


“People didn’t understand we were giving them a choice,” said Mr. Ogundipe.


The pay options, he says, acknowledge that workers may need different work and compensation arrangements depending on their career stage or financial situation. This year’s drop in tech-stock valuations has also prompted hires to rethink their preferences for pay.


“A year ago you’d see employees coming in, especially those from the coasts, wanting more equity,” he says. “Now they want more financial security and are choosing cash.”


At BAXUS, a New Jersey-based company that provides authentication and other services for high-end wine and spirit collectors, new hires select from three compensation packages that range from 75% salary and 25% equity to a 40-60 split. Receiving equity as a part of pay typically requires staying for a minimum vesting period, but the potential rewards can be much greater than earning just a salary.


CEO Todd Wiesel says that many developers he has hired outside the U.S. choose the highest-equity option, because the salaries they make from a U.S. company, even if lower, “go so much further than [the standard pay] where they live,” he says. Developers at the company typically get an annual starting salary in the low to mid six figures, he said.


Mr. Wiesel says he first offered the personalized compensation options to lure a particularly valuable employee to the company. Now BAXUS is using 2022 year-end reviews to offer the existing employees the same options.


Kyle Holm, who leads the compensation practice at Sequoia, a human-resources platform for employers, says there are caveats. Workers who choose different equity options may end up earning different amounts of money for roughly the same job. The varying compensation mixes make monitoring and benchmarking employee pay all the more important, he says.


Otherwise, companies may lose track of why employees earn such widely different salaries, he says. “All the company will see is there is an employee who is below others on cash and may then need to make an adjustment to ensure parity.”


Sana Hafeez, Unlearn.ai’s head of people, says the AI company conducts an annual benchmarking exercise to check whether employees are “paid fairly and competitively in the current market.”


Mr. Melvin, who accepted the job with Unlearn.ai and plans to get married in June, ended up negotiating a third option—64% cash and 36% equity.


“Ensuring we have enough cash on hand to have the wedding we want did play a role in the decision,” he says. Yet, he adds: “The equity helps keep you motivated.”

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