Claw Back Provision: What Is It, Why Is It Used and Is It Effective?

A claw back provision is a clause in a contract that requires money paid to employees to be returned to their employer or benefactor. Sometimes, there may be a penalty.


Companies often use clawback policies to give bonuses and incentive-based pay. These policies are most commonly used in the financial sector. Clawback provisions are usually non-negotiable. Clawbacks can be used to address misconduct, scandals, or poor performance.


To learn more about other terms commonly used in venture capital, check out our complete VC Glossary.


Table of Contents

What is a Claw back Clause?

A claw back clause, or a claw back provision, in an employment or business contract allows the organization to claim any bonus or incentive funds previously paid to employees. Claw back provisions can provide some assurance in cases where an employee’s misconduct, poor job performance, or a general decline in revenue needs to be addressed.


Sign-on bonuses may be offered to employees upon their employment. This could include a claw back clause that states that the bonus must return in the event of an employee’s early departure. These and other bonuses may include claw back clauses that incentivize employees who perform well to stay longer.


Contracts that include claw back provisions are often non-negotiable. They may also include a fee or penalty.


Understanding Claw backs

After 2008’s financial crisis, claw back provisions became more popular. They allow companies to recover CEOs’ incentive-based compensation if they are found guilty of misconduct or have discrepancies in their financial reports.


Employers can also include claw backs in employee contracts to control bonuses and other incentive-based payments. Claw back provisions are forms of insurance that the company can use to address a situation such as fraud or misconduct or to protect its profits in the event of a loss. If the employer is unhappy with their performance, the employee must repay the money.


Claw backs can be different than other repayments or refunds in that a penalty often accompanies them. Claw back provisions require employees to pay additional funds to their employer to be effective.


Claw back provisions are designed to prevent individuals from misusing incorrect information. They also help to balance community development with corporate welfare. They can be used to help prevent employees from misusing accounting information in the financial sector.


Claw backs are integral to a business model as they restore investor confidence and trust in the company or industry. Banks have implemented claw back provisions after the financial crisis to correct future errors made by their executives.


Take Note

Claw backs and executive compensation

The Sarbanes–Oxley Act 2002 was the first federal statute that allowed for claw backs on executive pay. This law allows for the claw back of bonuses and incentive-based compensation to CFOs and CEOs in the event of misconduct by the company, but not necessarily the executives.


The 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, later amended, allows for the claw back of incentive-based bonuses paid to executives or the 20 highest-paid employees. This applies to financial results that are inaccurate, regardless of any misconduct. This law applies only to companies that have received funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.


A proposed rule by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), part of the Dodd-Frank Act (2010), would allow companies to recover incentive-based compensation paid to executives if an accounting restatement occurs.


The amount of claw back allowed is the difference between what was paid and what was paid according to the restated results. Stock exchanges would be required to ban companies from being listed if they do not include claw back provisions in their contracts. The rule is still being approved.


Private Equity Clawbacks

Other settings may also include claw back provisions. It refers to limited partners‘ rights to reclaim a portion of the general partners’ carrying interest in private equity in cases where the general partners have suffered additional losses.


Claw backs can be calculated when a fund liquidates. Medicaid may recover the costs of care from the estates of deceased patients. Sometimes claw backs do not refer to money. In other cases, lawyers can recover privileged documents accidentally lost during electronic discovery.


Claw back Provisions: Examples

A number of federal laws, both proposed and enacted, allow executive compensation to be clawed back if there has been fraud or accounting error. Employers may also be allowed to include clawback clauses in their contracts.


Companies, insurance companies, and the federal government can use claw backs in many ways. Here are the most popular claw back provisions in place today:



  • Executive Compensation: Claw backs are available if an executive violates an agreement, misuses the information, or works for a competitor.


  • Life insurance – A provision could state that the policy has been canceled and that payments must be returned.


  • Dividends can be reclaimed under certain conditions.


  • Government contracts Contracts could be subject to claw backs if specific requirements are not met.


  • Medicaid: Medicaid may recover all monies that were paid for Medicaid recipients after their death.


  • Pensions – Companies can recoup pensions if the pensioner is found to have committed fraud or misappropriated information.


Claw back examples

To better understand this concept, let’s take a look at these claw back examples:


Example 1

Yahoo published a disclosure in 2014 stating that hackers had stolen data from 500 million users. In December 2016, Yahoo revealed that data theft could have affected more than one billion accounts. The shareholders lost more than $350 million due to these breaches.


The United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated whether Yahoo employees had hidden data breaches from shareholders and customers.


Yahoo had a claw back provision that covered Marissa Mayer’s salary. Yahoo only implemented the policy in the reporting of incorrect financials. It did not apply to accounting fraud. It implied that the clause didn’t cover hack incidents and Marissa Mayer may be safe.


Example 2

Wells Fargo was fined $185 million in September 2016 for fraud committed over many years.


The fraud included opening credit cards without customers’ consent, creating fake email addresses to sign up for online banking services, and forcing customers to pay late fees on accounts they didn’t even know they had. Wells Fargo also fired 5,300 employees as a result of the scam.


Claw back Rules

Sarbanes-Oxley Act 2002 was the first law to create the federal claw back clause. The provision allowed employees and beneficiaries to recover bonuses or other rewards. Penalties would be imposed for staff misconduct and discrepancies in accounting records. The beneficiary would be required to repay the rewards or bonuses.


The following law was the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. This law made it possible to recover in the event of business reporting errors, either intentionally or unintentionally. However, this law only applies to firms eligible for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.


After the 2008 Financial Crisis, renowned US banks needed to provide a mechanism for clawing back their losses. It was necessary to ensure that executives were accountable.

The UK passed laws allowing banks to recover bonuses from bankers who acted recklessly for ten years.


The Standard Chartered Bank created the law to reclaim bonuses from 150 top employees who had violated claw back rules. This included bank employees who could not pay but could be held responsible for legal and financial actions.


Bank requirements may dictate that the rules are different. They allow banks to claim rewards and bonuses for misconduct, unreasonable risks, or poor performance.


Bottom line

A claw back provision is an obligation in an agreement that requires an employee to return money paid to them by their employer. Sometimes, it comes with a penalty. Claw backs are used as protection in the event of fraud, misconduct, or poor performance.


Most provisions do not refer to incentives pay, such as bonuses, rewards, or other compensations. Claw back provisions are most common in the financial sector but can also be found in government contracts and used to pay for Medicaid or pensions.


To learn more about other terms commonly used in venture capital, check out our complete VC Glossary.


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