When and How to Use “To Whom It May Concern”

When and How to Use "To Whom It May Concern"

Whether it’s the cursor blinking on a blank screen or you’ve already written the letter, part of business correspondence is addressing your letter. The problem is, you have no idea who you’re addressing!

One fallback could be “To Whom It May Concern,” but that’s a bit formal and stuffy. Or is it? You might be surprised to learn that this classic greeting still has a place in business communications. Here’s when you can use “To Whom It May Concern” and how!

The History of “To Whom It May Concern”

Much like “Dear Sir or Madam,” the phrase “To Whom It May Concern” was often used in formal business writings when you had no idea who you were writing to. It was used on everything from sales letters to cover letters. 

Both phrases were utilized because it was hard to research companies and uncover the names of hiring managers or anyone else you might want to contact at a company. But these days, between LinkedIn, company websites, and some sleuthing, you can usually get the contact name of nearly anyone you want.

Should You Use “To Whom It May Concern”?

Believe it or not, there may be times when you can and should use the phrase and other times when you should skip it. Here’s what to consider.

Yes, You Should

Because the phrase is formal, it can come across as very respectful. Starting a written communication with “To Whom It May Concern” could demonstrate that you respect the recipient, their time, and the fact that they are reading your letter.

And in some ways, starting with “To Whom It May Concern” indicates that you understand, value, and recognize diversity. This is a gender-neutral greeting and indicates that you have no preconceived notions about the receiver.

No, You Shouldn’t

However, plenty of people feel that “To Whom It May Concern” is too formal and stiff. And many consider the greeting outdated. If you lead with “To Whom You May Concern,” the reader may think that you’re just as outdated and don’t understand how to interact with people in the modern business world.

Likewise, addressing your letter to “To Whom It May Concern” could indicate that you’re lazy! You couldn’t take a few minutes to research who “whom” is? And you can’t even bother researching what’s current in written communications? Neither of these is a good look in a professional setting.

When You Should Use “To Whom It May Concern”

Even though there may be some negative feelings about the phrase, there may still be times when “To Whom It May Concern” is your best—and only—option!

A Reference Letter

While you may leave a reference or recommendation for someone on LinkedIn, you might also be asked to provide one to a hiring manager. Sometimes, these requests come through an automated system. If that’s the case (or you suspect that’s the case) and there is no contact name included, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with “To Whom It May Concern.” The company doesn’t expect you to conduct research and personalize the greeting accordingly.

Meeting a New Client or Prospect

If you’re in a sales or customer service position, you may get automated inquiries and leads. Not only are you unlikely to get information about the sender’s gender, you may not even get a name. In this case, your response can be “To Whom It May Concern.”

A Complaint or Praise Letter

If you need to complain (it happens) or you want to let a company know about a stellar employee, you’ll likely send an email. And because you probably don’t know who to address your email to, “To Whom It May Concern” is perfectly acceptable. The same goes if your letter is to offer feedback or suggestions to the company.

Alternatives To Use Instead Of “To Whom It May Concern”

There are many written correspondences in which you shouldn’t use “To Whom It May Concern” for the reasons outlined above. Cover letters are one of those instances. Here are some alternatives to consider:

  • Dear [hiring manager’s name found in the job posting or through other research]
  • Dear Hiring Manager
  • Dear [name of the department] (Dear Product Team)
  • Dear [name of HR team] (Dear Talent Acquisition Team)
  • Dear [name of specific search committee] (Dear Customer Success Search Committee)

If none of the options above feel right to you, skip the greeting! These days, it’s perfectly acceptable to launch into your cover letter without any kind of greeting.

Likewise, if you’re writing a letter or email that’s not a cover letter and want to skip the formal greeting, you can use:

  • Hello
  • Greetings
  • Season’s Greetings
  • Good Day

Start Off Strong

The greeting you use for your letter sets the tone for how it is received. While “To Whom It May Concern” is not always the best choice, there are times when you can use it. Consider what kind of letter you’re writing and what message you want to send when choosing a greeting.

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