When Zynga, the social network game developer known for addictive games such as Farmville, Cityville, and Mafia Wars, initially started, they attracted talented employees with company stock in lieu of a higher salary. Last year, while Zynga prepared for an initial public offering, the company realized that too much stock had been given out to earlier employees. As a result, Zynga executives decided to give some employees an ultimatum—either give back unvested stock or lose their job.
In deciding which employees were required to give back stock, Zynga evaluated whose contributions did not justify a potential cash “windfall” from the unvested stocks when the company went public. Unsurprisingly, the few employees asked to give back unvested stock were not happy. Some employees have decided to fight back with the assistance of lawyers and may be trying to settle the issue. It is unclear what specific agreement Zynga had with its employees when the company first started. Veteran employees of Zynga may now be regretting not negotiating a higher salary with Zynga instead of agreeing to the stock options. On the other hand, Zynga is well within its rights to fire employees they do not believe are performing well, in which case the employees would lose the unvested stocks anyway.
When employers do not give out high salaries and offer other types of incentives instead (such as stock options), employees should be mindful that while stock options may be lucrative for successful startup companies, they come with a risk. Lawyers and executives in Silicon Valley comment that taking back unvested stock from employees of internet startups is not a common practice, however they believe the practice has potential to become widespread.