To Whom It May Concern: How to Use It Properly

How to Use the Salutation ‘To Whom It May Concern’

When you’re writing important business correspondence, you may feel tempted to use the formal salutation “To Whom It May Concern.” After all, you rarely have occasion to dust off that old-fashioned phrase and put it to good use! Isn’t a formal letter the perfect opportunity? Well, if you’re thinking about using the phrase “To Whom It May Concern,” we urge you to reconsider. The phrase predates the modern internet. It’s old-fashioned. With websites and social networks at your fingertips, nowadays you have the ability to conduct research that wouldn’t have been possible when this phrase was in vogue. Today, there’s no excuse for not knowing someone’s name, especially if you’re writing to him or her about important business.

As an example, if you apply for a job and plan to write to the hiring manager, you’d be best served by addressing the individual by name. In the event that you don’t know the hiring manager’s name, you should check the company’s website and LinkedIn profile. Let’s say you can’t determine the correct recipient from these sources. In that case, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call the company. You should always address your cover letter to the specific person who will be reviewing your application, rather to an anonymous reader. By doing so, you let the potential employer know that you’ve invested time to research the organization. You’ll make a stronger first impression, assuming your cover letter addresses the correct person.

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After calling the company, you may find that you’re still unable to determine the name of the hiring manager. In that case, consider using a different generic greeting. You could address your letter to the HR Manager or the Talent Acquisition Team. Beginning your letter with the phrase “Dear Recruiting Department” or “Dear Search Committee” would be better than saying “Dear sir or madam” or “To Whom It May Concern.” By using the company’s terminology, you show that you cared enough to learn about the structure of the organization where you hope to work. 

By including the department head’s name, you make a stronger case for yourself than you do by addressing a job title or name of department. Beyond making a better first impression, anytime you greet someone directly, you forge a personal connection that may help you achieve your goal. For any communication—whether it’s a job search, a formal complaint, or a sales inquiry—writing to the right person can be critical. You can usually find contact information for employees on the “About Us” section of a company’s website. By including someone’s name in your letter, you’ll be more likely to get a fair reading and have your letter end up in the right hands.

Knowing that it’s best to write to someone specific, you may still come across situations in which you’ll need to address an unknown recipient. You may want to use “To Whom It May Concern” under the following circumstances:

Letter of Reference

When you write a letter of recommendation for a former employee or a student, the salutation may need to apply to a number of different readers in the future. Often, the employee or student will distribute copies of the letter to recruiters or potential employees. When you address the letter “To Whom It May Concern,” you allow for many different use cases. 

Form Submissions

When you receive a business inquiry without any context, as often happens through an online comment form, you’ll need to choose a generic salutation. Some less formal salutations include “Hello there” and “Greetings.” 

Complaints and Company Feedback

When you give company feedback to your own employer, the HR department may send your comment to relevant parties across the organization. Often, especially in large companies, a formal complaint bounces around to different departments. If you think your business letter will be passed around, you may want to avoid confusion by using a generic greeting. You’ll need to weigh the costs and benefits of addressing your letter to one person. On the plus side, choosing only one recipient could be a personal touch that inspires the reader to address your complaint. On the negative side, receiving a letter addressed to somebody else can be confusing. 

Prospecting

It’s common for people who work in sales to include a generic salutation when they’re unsure about which person they should contact within an organization; however, we recommend a stronger strategy. You’d be better off finding the name of an employee who is likely to be a colleague of your ideal prospect. Then, you can write to them, asking for the contact information of the decision-maker within the organization. Now, when you contact your prospect, you can say, “Tim told me that you’re the decision-maker when it comes to marketing software.” You’ll be ahead of the game by the time you reach out to your prospect, since you’ve already done your research. 

How to Use the Phrase Correctly

When you use the phrase “To Whom It May Concern,” be sure to capitalize each word. We recommend following the phrase with a colon, rather than a comma. After the salutation, skip a line or two, and then begin your letter. Be sure to ask for the reader’s name in the body of your letter, if appropriate, so that you’ll be able to address your recipient by name in future correspondence! 

For a list of the six best salutations, review our article about how to start an email. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/to-whom-it-may-concern-2062120
  2. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/when-to-use-to-whom-it-may-concern
  3. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/when-to-use-to-whom-it-may-concern

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