Terminating China-based employees without severance is generally a difficult thing to do. Even terminating a probationary employee can be tricky. See China Employee Probation: All is NOT What it Seems. Mutual terminations with settlement agreements and claim releases are usually the safest route.
For a mutual termination to work well you should put the terms and conditions of the termination in writing even if both parties (employer and employee) have reached a mutual understanding through friendly consultation. Without a written agreement, the employer is at great risk of later legal action by the employee.
How should you as the employer proceed to effectuate a mutual termination? You initiate the process by coming up with an initial severance amount and a list of any additional matters that need to be resolved with the employee. You then approach the employee and ask him or her if she would be agreeable to a mutual termination with your proposed terms, which will include among other things, a fair amount of severance. In our experience, Chinese employees usually will agree to a mutual termination as they prefer receiving a quick payout to many months of contentious litigation. We normally suggest our clients talk to the employee themselves during the initial stages (with our employment lawyers coaching them in the background). It can often be a mistake for an employer to bring its lawyers into employee termination negotiations too early as doing so can make things more confrontational and indicate to the employee that the amounts at stake may be higher than he or she initially realized.
As you are nearing the end of your negotiations with your employee, you should inform the employee that you will be providing a written agreement that contains all agreed-upon terms for the employee to review and sign.
You will next want to provide the employee with a hard copy of the mutual termination agreement and give him or her time to review it and ask any questions. We make our employee termination agreements clear, reasonable and concise, and China employees usually sign them with little to no fuss. Make sure your agreement covers all relevant issues regarding your specific employee. Sometimes, your employee may want you to leave out certain things for various reasons or put in something that is not true. For example, your employee may want to make it ambiguous about the mutual nature of the termination. You need to say no and inform him or her that the agreement must be clear about the termination being mutual. You need to proceed with extreme care. It is not uncommon for foreign companies to call our law firm after they have been sued by an employee a month or two after believing they just settled with that very same employee.
Do not issue the mutual termination agreement to your employee before you have communicated with the employee regarding the termination and have agreed on the issues. Nor should you make the employee sign an agreement on the spot that he or she has not previously reviewed; the mutual termination agreement should not come to the employee as a total surprise.
Finally, make sure both parties fully execute the agreement and then you should be sure to fulfill your obligations under the agreement, such as wiring the employee his or her full severance payment. Retain one original copy of the fully executed agreement for your records. You must also meet all your other obligations with respect to the employee departure, such as transferring the employee’s social insurance.
Do not treat the mutual termination agreement as a “mere formality” as this document is key to your protection. It should be in Chinese as the official language (preferably with English as well for you) and you as the employer need to know exactly what it says and agree with all of its terms. It is common for Chinese employees to draft Chinese-only agreements “merely as a formality” and try to get you to sign off on that. These employee-drafted termination agreements virtually never protect the employer and they often lead result in the employee coming back to the employer for more money a few weeks later.
Don’t skip the formal mutual termination agreement just because the employee you are terminating is in a “special” status. For example, even if the employee is on probation, so long as it’s a mutual termination, you should enter into a written mutual termination agreement with that employee. Just because the probation/employment period is short does not mean you should not handle the termination properly. You should document ALL employee terminations in writing
Did you handle your employee terminations properly? Now is the time to check to make sure.