It can be difficult to know how to address professional correspondence. When should you begin a letter with ‘To Whom It May Concern,’ and when is it better to use something else?
Whether you are writing a cover letter, informational interview request, job acceptance letter, or any other professional communication, most professionals agree that it is best not to use ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ Many people see it as outdated and formal, and it can feel too impersonal and perfunctory.
Still, there are some occasions where the phrase is acceptable. In this article we will discuss when to use ‘To Whom It May Concern’ as a greeting, when not to use it, and what to use instead.
This familiar greeting still sees some use, but it is not ideal for all contexts. In fact, it is best to avoid it as much as possible. Here is a quick guide to using (and not using) ‘To Whom It May Concern.’
If possible, it’s always best to be specific about who you are writing to. Addressing a letter to an individual is personable and polite, and will be much more likely to generate a positive response. Any time you know the name of the person who will receive your letter, use that instead of a generic greeting.
Even if you don’t have a name, there are other alternatives to ‘To Whom It May Concern’ you can use. You can address your letter to a title (Dear Department Manager), a team (Dear Logistics Department), or simply omit the greeting altogether.
Each of these alternatives will be discussed in greater detail later in this article.
If you’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague, employee, or student, you probably don’t know who will be reading it. It may even be used in more than one application. If this is the case, a formal generic greeting like ‘To Whom It May Concern’ is acceptable.
When prospecting for new clients, sales opportunities, or other business connections, you might not be sure where your messages will end up. Sales outreach should be personal, but this isn’t always possible. Try to find specific people to reach out to as much as you can, but when the company doesn’t make this information available, a standard greeting may be used.
If you are lodging a formal complaint with a company, even the one you work for, addressing your message by name could be too specific or personal. Your feedback may affect more than one department, and you don’t necessarily know who will be fielding the complaint. It’s best to use a generic greeting and allow HR or reception to pass it along to the relevant party.
If you are introducing yourself or your business through a generic application portal or contact form, such as in a cover letter or letter of introduction, you may need to use a generic greeting. Online applications are often impersonal, and the first thing to read your letter may well be an applicant tracking system rather than a person.
If you decide that you do want to use this old-fashioned salutation, make sure to do it right. Use ‘whom’ rather than ‘who’, capitalise the first letter of each word, and punctuate the greeting with a colon or a comma:
To Whom It May Concern:
If you have decided against this generic greeting, there are some alternatives. Greeting a person by name is always the best choice, but there are other options as well.
If you know who your contact is, your letter should address them by name. You can use a title, like Mr., Ms., or Dr. if appropriate, or simply address them by their full name. If you are on good terms, you can use their first name.
If you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to, you can probably find out. Most people and companies have a robust online presence, so with a bit of research you should be able to get the name you need.
Some companies, especially smaller ones, list the names of their employees online. Find the company’s website and look for the About Us or Meet the Team page to see if your contact is listed there.
You can also visit the company’s LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn can tell you who many of the company’s current employees are, as well as their roles. The company’s other social media accounts, like Instagram or Facebook, may also feature employees in some posts.
If the internet fails, you can also make a good old-fashioned phone call. Reach out to the recruiter or human resource manager and ask who your message should be addressed to. If you are polite and well-meaning, they could give you the contact information you need.
If you don’t know the name of the person who will receive your correspondence, but you do know their role, you can address them this way. This shows that you know who is in charge of correspondence, even if you don’t know their name.
If you can’t find the name of the person who will read your letter, you can instead address it to the team as a whole. As long as you know the department that will be reading your message, you can address them as a group.
Another acceptable (if abrupt) option is to omit the greeting entirely and start your letter without referring to a person or team. You can do this by mentioning the topic you are writing about, using a greeting without a name, or by simply jumping right into the first paragraph.
Ben is a writer and customer support specialist with 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume and the power of coffee.
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