Global Employment Contracts: The Modern Tower of Babel
Although multi-jurisdictional compliance is a challenge in relation to every aspect of employment law, the structure of employment contracts and the enforcement of global policies require particularly careful consideration.
The need to coordinate individual country compliance across numerous countries whilst still maintaining a common company culture requires extensive knowledge of national laws and considerable ﬂexibility.
US-based businesses will be used to working with at-will offer letters, but these are mostly unheard of elsewhere. In most jurisdictions, detailed employment contracts are not only customary, but are required by law. As you would expect, companies must ensure the legal compliance of their contractual documentation for each country in which they do business. This includes engagement letters, employment offers, employment contracts, bonus schemes, stock option plans, etc.
With employment contracts, the most common approach is to prepare a contract compliant with local law in accordance with best practices in the jurisdiction where the individual is to be employed. Contracts should incorporate crucial terms, such as probationary periods, termination grounds, working time provisions, and post-termination non-compete and/or non-solicitation provisions.
Countries have varying rules on the maximum duration of a probationary period. For example, France permits an eight-month probationary period, one renewal included, for executives under an indeﬁnite-term contract (contrat à durée indéterminée); whereas a 90-day probationary period is standard in the United States.
Subject to applicable statutory restrictions in each country, termination provisions provide a good starting point to enforce the departure of an employee, for example in case of a violation of company policies, such as a code of conduct.
In France, where the legal working time is 35 hours per week, there is the option of entering into ﬂat-rate pay agreements for autonomous executives whose roles and responsibilities do not permit alignment with the collective working time/office schedule. In the United Kingdom, there exist more ﬂexible, zero-hours contracts, under which the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours but, equally, the employee has no obligation to accept the work offered.
The rules on post-termination provisions, such as conﬁdentiality, non-compete and non-solicitation restrictions, vary signiﬁcantly. Some jurisdictions follow a reasonableness approach (Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom); others have outright prohibitions (India, Mexico, and Russia); and others mandate compensation for non-compete clauses (China, France, and Germany).
With so many nuances country-by-country, contract drafters often consider choice of law and jurisdiction clauses. Public policy considerations may, however, override such clauses. For an Italian citizen hired in Italy to work in Italy, it will be difficult to apply Australian law merely because the employer is an Australian corporation. The general rule is that the laws of an employee’s physical worksite will likely apply, regardless of such clauses.
The relevant law for all European Union countries is the Rome I Regulation. Under Rome I, foreign employees in Europe beneﬁt from the mandatory laws of the country with which they have the closest connection, which will usually be the country where they normally work. Accordingly, a German employee working in France should receive a French law-governed employment contract, even if the employee works for a UK employing entity.
For highly mobile employees, however, the place of work is often debatable. For instance, English employment courts have decided that an employee working remotely in Australia has the right to bring an unfair dismissal claim in the United Kingdom if the work is done for a UK employer, regardless of the employee’s physical worksite.
Forum-selection provisions that call for a forum other than the place of employment tend to be unenforceable outside the United States. In London, US expatriates working under contracts with such clauses who sue before an English Employment Tribunal are unlikely to see their claim dismissed when their employer invokes the forum-selection clause.
In choice-of-forum situations, Europeans invoke the provisions of the “Recast Brussels Regulation.” These codify the general rule that employees rarely have to litigate employment disputes outside their host country place of employment, even if a choice-of-foreign-forum clause purports to require otherwise.
Communicating Global Policies
Every organisation has bespoke policies, employee handbooks, and a code of conduct. In addition, every organisation has its own HR practices, such as evaluation processes and training programmes, all dictated by the corporate culture and even corporate vocabulary. It can be challenging to extend those across borders and the legal systems of different countries.
In France, policies related to safety, disciplinary procedures, harassment, whistleblowing, etc., particularly if the policy provides sanctions, must be incorporated within internal rules (règlement intérieur), which must be ﬁled with the employment court and inspectorate. If a company fails to ﬁle its policies correctly, it may not be able to discipline employees for violating the rules.
Country by country, companies must consider the interrelationship between the contract and the applicable policies. In some jurisdictions, it is advisable to incorporate relevant handbook policies into the contract. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is compulsory to mention disciplinary and grievances procedures in the contract.
Where the policies are written is, however, merely the beginning. How they are written is much more complicated. Communicating clearly in multiple languages is now a core HR function for global entities. Many jurisdictions, such as Belgium, France, and Poland, require contracts to be in the local language, even for an employee ﬂuent in the primary language used by the employer. If the contract is not in the local language, its provisions, the policies, and other elements, will be unenforceable, at least for the employer.
A typical example is a global bonus plan, where a failure by the employer to translate the target objectives can allow the employee to claim a bonus without needing to comply with the terms of the plan (i.e., without achieving the stated goals or objectives). This has been conﬁrmed by French case law.
In some countries, such as Turkey, the local language will always prevail, regardless of what is provided for in the contract. In those cases, ensuring translation accuracy can avoid inadvertently granting employees more generous terms under a local translation than the company intended.
Local language translations are also required for other purposes. For instance, in Spain the employment contract needs to be ﬁled with the government, in Spanish. In other countries, such as China, works councils and unions will need to be consulted on the implementation of policies, and submissions for those consultations will need to be in the local language.
As a result, businesses now often consider whether to create employment documents in the local language only, or in two languages. If a document is used that has two columns showing the corporate language and the local language, it is crucial to state which language prevails.