Companies in two Chinese provinces, Shandong and Hubei, have been told they must seek official consent if they want to lay off more than 40 people.
The order highlights the Chinese authorities' concern over mounting job losses.
In Shandong alone, nearly 700,000 people have lost their jobs this year.
In southern Guangdong, tens of thousands of firms have closed, sparking off reverse migration to the countryside by redundant workers.
The Chinese authorities are keen to avoid social instability, seen as a source of labour and political unrest.
The human resources controls imposed in Shandong and Hubei are an attempt to put bureaucratic obstacles in the way of mass layoffs.
But it is unclear how effective they will be.
"The factories are not getting enough orders, so some workers have nothing to do," Chinese media quote a Shandong factory manager as saying.
"I have been thinking of getting rid of some of them to cut costs. But if the government doesn't agree to my layoff plans, what can I do? I can't afford to pay them all."
The alternative may be drastic wage cuts.
In one factory in Guangdong, salaries have been reduced by up to 75%.