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Friday, July 8, 2011

Honesty makes employee incentives work better

Cross posted from Open IT Strategies.

The private equity investors who flipped Skype (from eBay to Microsoft) have decided to screw some of their employees out of their “vested” stock options.

The issue came up when one Skype employee, Yee Lee, found he forfeited his stock appreciation rights when he left Skype before the acquisition. He summarized his problem on a blog post last month.

Corporate lawyer-turned-law-school-professor (and New York Times pundit) Steven Davidoff summarized the controversy in two postings at NYT DealBook. (Not yet behind the paywall).

In the first article, he noted that PE firm (Silver Lake) could have settled the controversy for less than a million bucks. He attributed the decision to a culture clash between NY financiers and SV venture capitalists. The former is not about reputation or honor, but money.
But in Silicon Valley, the community is not only smaller, the people work together again and again, and so trust and reputation are valued more highly. On his LinkedIn page, Mr. Lee alone lists more than 10 companies where he has worked. When you are going to see and work with the same people repeatedly over many years, $1 million is small change to buy their needed loyalty.
Davidoff argues that while VC has a better reputation, both sides add value equally. Of course, he is a former NY lawyer who advised big companies on their acquisitions.

But the reality is that while VCs do is equally greedy and lucrative, what they do is more rare and economically valuable. Restructuring can be (and has been) done by PE firms, managers who lead a MBO, more traditional corporate acquirers, or even in-house executives with the proper incentives. Best practice in operational efficiency disseminates pretty quickly, so very little about the PE business model (or their value add) is protectable over time.

In a second article, Davidoff concludes that employees are just as likely to be screwed by carefully hidden legal mumbo-jumbo by Google or a raft of other recent startups. (What we don’t know is how each company verbally represented this clause — did they call attention to it or did they bury).

Davidoff’s solution to both cases is that the employee should see a lawyer. (In other words, his philosophy is to create a full employment act for his peers and his students).
In a narrow legalistic sense he's right — that is if Lee were lucky enough to find a lawyer with the right kind of experience. As an entrepreneur, I lost $50,000+ on a business deal that was vetted by my lawyer; my lawyer (of many years) didn’t understand my business well enough to anticipate the scenario that played out, I didn’t volunteer it and he didn’t ask.

However, more seriously, this sort of “ask a lawyer before doing anything” causes an unaffordable drag for startups and their employees. Yes,it might only be $500 for the one consultation that spotted the problem, but it’s also $500 for all those other times where it wasn’t necessary but you paid the lawyer just in case.

There is a non-lawyer solution: we acknowledge that there are fundamentally two types of options: those that actually vest, and those that are only exercisable by current employees.

If the ideas of the incentive stock option is to incentivize employee, then the terms and conditions should be clearly articulated in plain English. If necessary, the state or federal government should require employers to spell it out. (Banning misleading practices is the one place where I believe in aggressive government action.)

I once heard ethicist Michael Josephson say on his radio segment: "Integrity means doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” (The original author is lost, but similar remarks have been made by quarterback-minister J.C. Watts).

In Davidoff’s world, employers and employees are adversaries using lawyers to duke it out even before conflict arises. In a company with integrity — the only sort I’d put my name to — the terms and restrictions for employee compensation are clearly explained in a way that every employee can understand. As an added benefit, doing the right thing makes sure that the employees and employer have their goals fully aligned (at least until after the end of the lockup period).

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