You should have a China-centric contract when doing business in China or even with China. See China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother. This holds doubly true for employment contracts with China employees because those agreements are highly local.
And though I should not have to say this, translating your existing employment agreements into Chinese is not going to cut it — not even close. Yet every few months, some foreign company (almost always an American or Australian company for some reason) will come to one of our China employment lawyers with a problem involving a foreign country employment agreement translated into Chinese.
The below are some of the common examples we see where a foreign contract/foreign mindset does not jibe with China’s employment law reality.
1. The employment agreement makes clear the employee is being hired on an at-will basis, which means he or she may be fired for “good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.” This generally works in the United States and in a few other countries around the world, but it does not work in China, and putting such a provision in your employment contracts can and often is used as evidence to support a wrongful termination claim, so please just skip it. Terminating a China-based employee nearly always requires good cause and far too often companies that put these at-will provisions in their China employment contracts actually believe what they say and end up in big trouble for wrongful firings.
2. The employee is expected to work whenever needed to get the job done. This can sometimes work for certain China employees provided various specific conditions have been clearly met, but putting this sort of provision in a contract is not a way to meet those conditions — it is yet another red flag for China judges when you get sued by one of your employees. For you to be able to use your China employees after hours without having to deal with overtime provisions, that employee must (1) have been cleared by the appropriate labor bureau as eligible to work under an alternative working hours system, and (2) have specifically agreed in their employment contract to work under such an arrangement. Note also that clearance for one of your employees being able to work under an alternative working hours system typically lasts for only a year, depending on the locality. Note also that the alternative working hours system cannot be used with most employees. Getting an employee to consent to this without government approval also does not work.
3. The employee agrees to adjudicate all employment-related disputes through arbitration. This does not work if you try to limit your employees to only labor arbitration and it certainly does not work if you try to require your employees to arbitrate disputes against you in your home country or really anywhere outside the jurisdiction where they are employed. I surprisingly often have to tell American companies that putting a provision in a contract with a China employee that United States law will apply and all disputes must be resolved in some U.S. city has the same likelihood of success in China as would a provision requiring an Omaha employee be bound by Chinese law and Chinese jurisdiction, which is exactly zero. Think about it. Is any American jurisdiction going to let you hire someone and pay them pursuant to China’s minimum wage requirements? Of course not, and the reverse is equally true.
4. The employee agrees to a non-compete that comes into force after termination of employment and the consideration for this non-compete is the promise of employment. This generally works in the United States (though not California), but in China, if you want one of your employees to be bound by a non-compete provision, you must pay them consideration for their not competing during the entire term of the post-termination non-compete period. For example, a sign-on bonus may not be consideration for a China non-compete; the (former) employee must receive compensation via bank transfer on a monthly basis after termination for your non-compete to hold.
Provisions like the above send strong signals to your employees, to China labor bureau authorities, and to China’s courts that you do not understand China’s employment laws and you are not willing to make the effort to comply with them. This increases both the odds of your having China employment law problems and the odds of your employees suing you when such problems arise. And as mentioned above, having these unenforceable and illegal provisions in your China employment contracts also tends to prejudice judges against you when you are actually sued.
Bottom Line. Use a China-centric employment agreement with all your China employees.