The Huai’an Intermediate People’s Court in Jiangsu Province recently awarded over RMB50,000 to an employee unlawfully terminated for having a romantic relationship with a co-worker.

The employer had a policy prohibiting any employee from entering into a romantic relationship with another employee. Breach of the policy was punishable by summary dismissal without severance. When the employer discovered an employee was having a secret romantic relationship with a co-worker, the company dismissed the employee for violating the company policy, which was also stipulated in the employee’s employment contract. The employee challenged the dismissal in court.

The court ruled that the company policy violated the freedom to marry enshrined in the marriage law (even though the two employees never married, the court apparently broadly interpreted this right to cover freedom to form romantic relationships), and that such company rule was thus invalid. Therefore, the court invalidated the company policy and ordered statutory damages for wrongful termination.

Key Take-Away Points:

This case reveals the risk of unilaterally terminating an employee simply for having a romantic relationship with a co-worker, even if company policies explicitly prohibit this.

That said, romantic relationships between employees can harm a business. Therefore, to both protect the company’s interests and mitigate the risk of wrongful termination, any employer that wishes to restrict romantic relationships should consider adopting a more reasonable and more limited policy that does not create a blanket prohibition with summary dismissal as its remedy. For example, the employer might consider a policy that restricts only relationships between superiors and subordinates, or that otherwise create a conflict of interest.

Even with these or other limitations, the policy could be challenged in court and its validity would be subject to court discretion.