The issues related to China employee probation are usually more complicated than they first appear and though many of our employer clients and potential clients are telling us “we get it now,” our China employer audits consistently find the opposite to be true.
Let’s consider a hypothetical based on an amalgamation of some document-based HR audits we performed for China employers. Employer and Employee enter into an employment contract that does not specify either a probation period nor a term of employment. The contract provides for a monthly base salary amount. For the first six months of employment, Employer pays Employee an amount less than the base salary amount specified in the contract. Employee later resigns and brings a claim against Employer for the six month difference between her reduced rate and the contract amount. Employer argues it does not need to pay because of a provision in its Employer Rules and Regulations stating that all new employees have a six month probation period during which they receive a reduced salary — it even provides a specific salary amount for the probation period. So the basic issue is whether the employer and the employee agreed on a probation period.
They did not.
There was no explicit agreement between the parties regarding the probation period. Under Chinese law, the probation period is not one of the mandatory items that must be included in an employment contract. This essentially means that an employer that wants a probation period to test out a new employee must clearly describe the probation period in the employee’s employment contract. An employer cannot unilaterally impose a probation period on an employee and that means that an employer that wants to pay a reduced rate to a probationary employee must explicitly provide for that in its employment contract.
Note also that because the cited provision in the employer rules and regulations applies to all new employees it could be deemed illegal and unenforceable for a couple of reasons. First off, it fails to exclude certain categories of employees for whom a probation period is not permitted. For example, Chinese law prohibits an employer from setting a probation period for part-time employees. For that reason, if the employer applies this provision to any of its part-time employees, it is in violation of the law. In addition, the term of the probation period should be proportional to the term of the employment. Specifically, for an employment term of more than three months but less than one year, the probation period cannot be more than one month; for an employment term of one year or more but less than three years, the probation period cannot exceed two months. The employer can only use a six-month probation period for 1) an employment term of three years or more or 2) an open-term employment arrangement. Unless the employer always brings on new employees under either of those circumstances, this provision needs to be revised to accord with the law.
Note another mistake made by the employer in the hypothetical above: it fails to clearly specify a term of employment in the contract. What this usually means is that the employer will be “stuck” with the employee indefinitely as the employee becomes an open-term employee, which basically means there is no definitive end date for the employment relationship.
Our China employment lawyers see problems related to probation periods far too often — well over 50 percent of the time for companies that have or seek to use probation periods. To ensure you as a China employer are in full legal compliance, you should check both your employer rules and regulations and your individual employment contracts. If you find they contain a provision similar to the above, you should update your documents now.