When you're contemplating bringing someone on your staff, it's reasonable to be concerned if you're hiring someone who intends to stay long-term vs. an employee whose commitment falls short of your expectations. Asking a candidate whether she's planning to stick with the job is legal, but be careful that you don't promise permanent employment or imply a contractual agreement if you want to reserve your company's rights under the employment-at-will doctrine.
If you're like most private-sector employers, you're diligent about informing employees about at-will status. At-will employment means you or the employee can end the working relationship at any time, for any reason, and even without advance notice. Probing whether an applicant wants to stay with the company long-term could lead you down that dangerous path of implying there could be an employment agreement. In some jurisdictions, an implied employment agreement can nullify your rights under the employment-at-will doctrine.
Instead of confusing, point-blank questions such as, "Do you intend to stay here permanently?" ask the applicant about her career aspirations. You could ask, "Where do you see yourself in two to five years?" or "Have you given thought to pursuing an advanced degree to improve your marketability?" There are myriad ways to separate applicants who have defined their professional goals from applicants who are merely looking for a job to pay the bills for awhile. Avoid asking "Are you looking for permanent employment?"
Examine Work History
Also, ask about her employment history to detect patterns that suggest whether she's prone to job hopping or if she's a relatively stable worker. You'll get the details from her resume before the interview, but the applicant can flesh it out. For every previous job, ask why she resigned or left the company. If her answers suggest that she's continually in search of greener pastures, you might be wise to reconsider her long-term goals and whether the job you're interviewing her for is a good fit. Workers whose employment history shows them leaving job after job for better opportunities often are restless and might not be good candidates for long-term employment.
Another way to discern whether you're interviewing an applicant who's interested in long-term employment is to gauge her reaction to your description of the job. Explain the company's promotion and transfer policies, as well as the potential for advancement. Applicants who are interested in long-term employment typically will be encouraged by an employer's commitment to helping employees reach their career goals. The applicant's follow-up questions should also clue you in as to whether she's interested in a career vs. a job.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.