Our China employment lawyers were recently asked by a China employer about pursuing claims against an employee who failed to give sufficient notice of their resignation. Generally speaking, you cannot demand an employee pay damages for an early resignation unless you can show actual damages as a result.
Just a quick summary of the relevant law on employee resignations. In accordance with China’s Employment Contract Law, a China employee during his or her employment contract term can generally leave by giving 30 days written notice while an employee on probation can leave with 3 days notice. We usually (but not always) recommend our employer clients not make it more difficult for their employees to leave than the law mandates. Though it’s not an easy task, it is possible to pursue an employee for failing to abide by legal standard on resignation or a contractual standard, provided the contractual arrangement does not violate applicable law.
Let’s consider a hypothetical. Employer and Employee enter into an employment contract for a fixed term for Employee to work as a front-desk cashier at a hotel. Employee leaves before her employment term is up without providing a reason or a notice of resignation. Employee’s manager tries to get in touch with her, but to no avail. Employer leaves the employee a text message warning her that if she does not return to work or otherwise get in contact with her Employer right away, Employer will take legal action. When Employee is no show, Employer hires a temp to perform her job duties. Employer then brings a labor arbitration claim for damages as a result of Employee’s unauthorized departure. Will Employer prevail?
In the real case on which the above hypothetical is based, the arbitrator noted that pursuant to China’s Employment Contract Law, an employee who violates the law on employment termination notices and causes damages to the employer by having done so shall be liable to the employer for damages. The arbitrator went on to hold that this particular had failed to provide adequate resignation notice as required by law (that is, 30 days’ written notice), had left her work position without authorization, and that her behavior had caused economic losses to her employer. It therefore ordered this employee to pay her employer damages. The employer did not get the amount it was seeking because the arbitrator held that the daily salary the employer claimed it paid to the temp was much higher than workers in similar and even higher positions and it significantly held that damages should be roughly $20 a day, not the $50 a day the employer had sought. To make a long story short, the employer had sought a little over $1300 in damages and it ended up being awarded a little over $200 instead.
This case affirms it is possible for an employer to pursue an employee for leaving without providing proper notice which causes damages to the employer. However, as is true of so many other claims against an employee, the amount of possible damages are likely to be so low that it will rarely make sense on economic grounds to pursue an employee for leaving early. Of the times a China employer has asked one of our China employment lawyers about pursuing an employee for leaving early, I can recall only one time where we thought it might make sense and that one time involved a very high level employee who the employer believed had left with trade secrets and a plan to compete against his former employer. Bringing the action in that instance would be done as much to send a message to the ex-employee and to other employees as for economic reasons.
Bottom Line: As is true of so much employment litigation and of litigation in general, the decision to pursue a claim needs to be based on more than just the likelihood of success on the merits. If you are going to bring any sort of arbitration claim or lawsuit in China you should first weigh the likelihood of success on the merits and the amount you will be awarded if you prevail and your likelihood of collecting on the one hand against the economic and emotional and opportunity costs on the other hand. In most cases, your best course of action will be to walk away.