When to Use the Phrase "To Whom It May Concern"
By Victor Johnson
Updated July 14, 2021 | Published February 14, 2019
Updated July 14, 2021
Published February 14, 2019
Victor Johnson is a career facilitator for Goodwill Columbus in Ohio with over 35 years of experience in training, instruction, career development and instructional design. Victor is an Air Force veteran and is licensed by the state as a Career Pathways Specialist.
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Whether you’re writing an email or preparing a physical letter, it’s important to begin every business correspondence with an appropriate greeting. One of the most common professional salutations is, “To Whom It May Concern.” But with so many alternatives, it can be challenging to determine when it’s appropriate to use this greeting and when you should use a recipient’s name, title or something else.
To help you compose a professional correspondence, consider the following background information on this greeting, tips for when to use it and alternatives you can choose instead.
Why people greet with “To Whom It May Concern”
Traditionally, the phrase “To Whom It May Concern” is used in business correspondences when you don’t know the recipient’s name or you’re not writing to a specific person. For example, if you’re writing a cover letter as part of a job application and it’s not clear from the job posting who will be reviewing your application, you may choose to start your letter with “To Whom It May Concern.”
This greeting was developed when it was more difficult to identify people’s job roles by researching companies, online public directories or professional organizations.
Today, it’s much easier to find the names of HR managers, department heads and other decision-makers you may be attempting to reach. As a result, this greeting has come to be viewed as outdated and old-fashioned.
However, you should only include someone’s name if you’re certain they’ll be the one receiving your email or letter. Addressing your message to the wrong person could create confusion or look unprofessional. In those circumstances, it may be better to use the phrase, “To Whom It May Concern” or an alternative.
When to use the phrase “To Whom It may Concern”
When do you use “To Whom It May Concern?” Perhaps we are looking at the last question to ask. The first question should be, “In formal correspondence, what is the appropriate greeting to use?” Greeting a person by name and/or job title indicates several qualities of the sender:
It shows your respect
Greeting a person by name or title shows that you recognize their humanity and/or their profession.
It shows your diligence and determination
There are times when sending a cover letter or other correspondence related to applying for a job, you may not know the name of the addressee. To find the right person, job title or department would take diligent research online or by phone coupled with patience.
It shows you understand present-day society and recognize diversity
Forget the pitfall of thinking in terms of being “politically correct.” It is a respectful courtesy to address someone in the manner they prefer. You may not know whether a person prefers to be addressed as she/her or them/they pronouns.
Starting with “Dear Sir or Madam” could be seen as a lack of understanding of diversity in today’s workplace.
"To Whom It May Concern" Alternatives
"Greetings," "Hello," "Hi there," "Dear [Team or Department]," "Dear [Job Title]," "Dear [First Name]," or "Dear [Mr./Mrs./Ms./Dr./Professor] [Last Name]"
Steps to take before using "To Whom It May Concern"
You should consider researching for a point of contact before using "To Whom It May Concern." Using this salutation when the name of the contact is easily discoverable could leave a negative impression on the recipient as it might convey that you did not take the time and effort. This is especially true when writing an email or cover letter in hopes of employment. Before using "To Whom It May Concern," you should consider taking these actions:
Check the job posting
If you’re sending an email as part of a job application process, be sure to carefully review the job posting for a contact name. Sometimes employers include the name of the recruiter or hiring manager responsible for reviewing applications within their posting.
Use the company website
Try looking for the ‘Staff’ or ‘Meet the Team’ section on the company website. Look for the manager of the department you’re applying to or the head of the human resources department.
Use a professional networking website
Search for the recruiter or hiring manager for that department by seeing if the company has a professional page on the networking website.
Ask another contact
If you have a friend or acquaintance who works at the company, reach out to see if they know the appropriate person to address in the salutation.
Contact customer service
When seeking a job, go the extra mile in the correspondence you send. If you can’t find the information you need on the internet, use the clues you found there. One clue is a phone number.
Call the company to ask questions and find out where your correspondence should be going. Ask if they will disclose the name of the hiring manager. Make sure to explain the reason you’re seeking the information.
Example: “Hello, my name is Jason Lopez and I’m applying for a position with your company’s sales department. Would you mind providing me the name and title of the hiring manager so I can address them appropriately?”
In larger companies, human resource representatives may be set up in different divisions. Even if you cannot locate the person, you can ask about the division and what the general job title is within that section.
Example: “To: Talent Acquisition Specialist, Red Widgets Division”
When to use “To Whom It May Concern”
Here are five situations in which it’s appropriate to use this salutation:
1. Cover letter
Employers often use a generic email alias for applications, such as “firstname.lastname@example.org” or “HR@companyname.com.” In this case, it’s unclear whether your application will be reviewed by a recruiter, HR leader, hiring manager or multiple professionals.
Because you must make a positive first impression, it’s better not to risk incorrectly guessing the recipient’s name if you cannot find the point of contact through research.
2. Contact referral or recommendation letter
If a former colleague asks you to write a letter of recommendation or act as a referral for a job opportunity, there’s a good chance they may not know who will be receiving the message. In some cases, you may also be required to submit your letter through an automated system that doesn’t provide any names or titles.
If you do not have the contact’s name or title, another greeting that you can use on a referral or recommendation letter is "To the Reader of This Letter." Although the difference is slight, "To the Reader" seems more direct than "To Whom It May Concern."
3. Introduction to a new or prospective client
If you are responding to an automated message from a potential customer and it doesn’t include their name, you’ll need to use a more generic greeting. This is also an opportunity to ask their name and title so you can be prepared to address them directly in future communications.
4. Prospecting letter
If you are in a sales or business development position, you may be responsible for contacting potential clients. Sometimes, company websites don’t include the name and contact information of the decision-maker you’re hoping to reach. In this case, you may need to start your letter with a generic salutation.
5. Company feedback or suggestions
If you want to share your feedback or suggestions with an employer, it’s usually best to start by submitting your letter to HR.
But if you’re not sure which person in the department is responsible for reviewing feedback, especially if it’s a large organization, it’s acceptable to use a generic greeting. This is especially helpful if feedback will need to be addressed by multiple people or departments.
“To Whom It May Concern” alternatives
In many cases, using this salutation can seem outdated, impersonal or unfriendly, especially if you’ve met the recipient or know their name or job role. Here are a few alternatives you may want to consider before starting a business email or letter with “To Whom It May Concern.”
1. “Dear [First Name]” or “Dear [Mr./Mrs./Ms./Dr./Professor] [Last Name]”
Be aware of your use of pronouns. If you have a first name, you can use it, but don't make guesses when you have a first and last name but don't know the person.
For instance, Chris Cooper could be she/her or he/him. If all you have is the last name, use the job title, "Dear HR Specialist Jones.” It may seem a bit formal, however, this correspondence may be your first opportunity to make a good impression.
If you know your recipient’s name, you should use that instead of a more generic greeting. If you’re contacting someone for the first time, you may want to address them by title and surname.
Example: “Dear Dr. Lee,”
Otherwise, you may use only their first name.
Example: “Dear Mark,”
While there have been surveys of HR professionals who say that "To Whom It May Concern" is not a deal-breaker, consider this: Eventually, your cover letter or professional statement will be read by a human being.
2. “Dear [Job Title]”
If you’re not sure of the recipient’s name but you know their job title or role, you can use that instead.
Example: “Dear HR Director,”
When writing a cover letter or letter of interest, here are additional alternatives to HR Director:
"Dear Hiring Manager"
"Dear HR Manager"
"Dear Recruiting Manager"
"Dear [Department] Manager"
3. “Dear [Team or Department]”
If you’re addressing multiple people within a department or you’re not sure which member of a team is the primary point of contact, you may choose to include the department name.
Example: “Dear Customer Service Department,”
4. “Greetings,” “Hello” or “Hi there”
If you’re sending a less formal correspondence, such as an office memo or meeting announcement, you may choose to use a more casual generic salutation. If applicable, you may also couple this with a team or department name.
Example: “Greetings marketing team,”
When to capitalize “To Whom It May Concern”
The most common method is to use capital letters for the first letter of every word, like this: “To Whom It May Concern,”
Think about this phrase as a replacement for someone’s name. You would capitalize each first letter in a person’s name because it is a proper noun and it is polite and professional to use capitalization when addressing someone. You can use a comma or a colon after the greeting. Insert a space between your greeting line and the first sentence of your letter.
“To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Joseph Hubbard and I am writing about your Lab Assistant position …”
Using the proper salutation in business correspondences demonstrates strong professionalism and communication skills. By knowing when to use “To Whom It May Concern” and when to use alternative greetings, you’ll make a positive impression in each email or letter you send.
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