During its new hire on-boarding process, China employers should confirm there are no encumbrances or restrictions on any new hires coming to work for your company. In particular, employers should make sure there are no in-force non-compete agreements. Let me explain why this is so important.
Though non-compete agreements are generally disliked by China’s administrative and judicial authorities, many employers like to have a non-compete agreement in place with every employee they hire, even part-time workers. Moreover, many employers prefer to have an elective agreement where the employer has the right to decide whether or not to enforce the non-compete agreement upon termination of the employment contract. In other words, the employer gets to decide whether it will pay the employee for not competing for a certain period of time after the employee’s departure, or whether the employee can “go free” without any restraints. The legality of such an elective arrangement depends on where you are located in China, but for purposes of this discussion let’s assume such terms are in fact legal and enforceable.
It makes complete sense for the employer to want to wait until the end of the employment term to see if the employee possesses any proprietary information worth protecting, since things may change during the course of employment. This especially makes sense because in China the employer must pay its departing employee not to compete.
What though happens if the employer does nothing when the employment relationship ends. Usually,“no action” on the part of the employer means the non-compete agreement does not come into force. If this is the employer’s intention it’s probably okay. But if the employee is both expecting and wanting a non-compete payment from you as his or her employer and you have not clarified the non-compete issue at time of termination, the employee may send you a demand for payment or even bring a lawsuit against you to enforce the non-compete. To avoid this battle and headache, if you decide you are not going to enforce the non-compete provision or contract, your best course of action is to make this clear to your departing employee before the employee’s departure. Doing this virtually always stops a terminated employee from suing for non-payment on a non-compete.
But what if you as the employer want to enforce your non-compete provision or agreement? In this case, you will need to inform the employee that you are electing to enforce the non-compete and you should also be sure to comply with all of the terms of the non-compete, including paying all non-compete compensation due to your departing employee. You should put your employee(s) on notice of your intent to enforce the non-compete via a clear writing to the employee. And by this I mean a hard copy document with clear language (in Chinese if your employee is Chinese) setting out your intention to enforce the non-compete. In most China jurisdictions, an employer who does not affirmatively confirm its desire to enforce a non-compete will be deemed to have waived its right to enforce the non-compete after three or so months. The exact number of months an employer can go without being deemed to have relinquished its rights to enforce a non-compete depends on the locale — as is true for just about everything else relating to China’s employment laws. See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple.
In the old days, when China non-competes were less complicated, our China employment lawyers pretty much always suggested to our clients that they put non-compete provisions in their China employment contracts. Nowadays though, we suggest they balance their need for a non-compete against the risks that such a provision or contract could eventually cause them problems. For example, what happens if you use a non-compete that automatically takes effect upon the employee’s termination and you have no intention of enforcing it when the employee leaves but you forget to terminate the non-compete when processing the employee’s departure? Though this too depends on your locale, in many of China’s cities, this will mean you will either need to reach agreement to pay your employee for a mutual termination of the non-compete or you do not pay any non-compete compensation and you run the risk of a Chinese arbitrator or judge determining that you are “stuck” with the non-compete because you knowingly signed a binding agreement that included one.
Bottom Line: You should be careful with your non-competes and that means not just inserting one without thinking through the repercussions of doing so and being very careful to act on any non-competes before any impending employee termination.