Employees can buy stock directly, be given it as a bonus, can receive stock options, or obtain stock through a profit sharing plan. Some employees become owners through worker cooperatives where everyone has an equal vote. But by far the most common form of employee ownership in the U.S. is the ESOP, or employee stock ownership plan. Almost unknown until 1974, ESOPs are now widespread; as of the most recent data, 6,669 plans exist, covering 14.4 million people.
Companies can use ESOPs for a variety of purposes. Contrary to the impression one can get from media accounts, ESOPs are almost never used to save troubled companies—only at most a handful of such plans are set up each year. Instead, ESOPs are most commonly used to provide a market for the shares of departing owners of successful closely held companies, to motivate and reward employees, or to take advantage of incentives to borrow money for acquiring new assets in pretax dollars. In almost every case, ESOPs are a contribution to the employee, not an employee purchase.