“To Whom It May Concern” has traditionally been used as a formal salutation in cover letters and other business correspondences.
It’s been around for decades, so odds are that you’ve seen it in one form or another. These days it’s overused (and sometimes misused) by people all over the world.
Salutations are your first impression with hiring managers or potential business leads. The wrong choice can make them feel like you haven’t researched the position, and a great one can set the tone for a great relationship.
By reading this article you’ll know exactly when to use “To Whom It May Concern” and when to avoid it like the plague. Plus, we’ll even throw in some handy alternatives you can use next time you’re on the fence.
Table of contents
Let’s get started!
Why people use “To Whom It May Concern”
People use “To Whom It May Concern” in business letters when they don’t know who the recipient of the letter will be.
When we meet someone (especially for the first time), we say a greeting before anything else. Since a salutation is a greeting, it is highly recommended in business letters.
Letters without salutations may be perceived as too abrupt, creating a bad first impression.
However, saluting the would-be recipient of your letter is trickier when the person’s identity is unknown. For example, you won’t know whether to address your letter to the Hiring Manager or the Human Resource Manager. Or whether to address it to a Sir or a Madam.
Thus, when the recipient’s identity is unknown, there is the risk of addressing the letter to the wrong person.
The “To Whom It May Concern” salutation was created to solve this problem. “To Whom It May Concern” is a generic salutation that can be addressed to anybody reading the letter.
Is it outdated/ old-fashioned?
“To Whom It May Concern” is now seen as an outdated salutation in professional correspondence. This is because it is now easier to find the identity of the person you are writing to.
Before the digital age, it wasn’t easy to know the names and roles of specific people at companies and organizations. “To Whom It May Concern” was developed at that time.
People generally had no issues with the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation in those days. They knew that, despite your best effort, finding people’s contact information was difficult.
However, computer technology now makes information readily available to anyone. Today, finding any information depends on how hard you are willing to search.
So, if you use the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation today, the recipient may reason that you did not make any effort to find the appropriate information.
That said, the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation is now outdated because it is easy to find information about the person you are writing to.
When to use “To Whom It May Concern”
That “To Whom It May Concern” is outdated does not mean you should avoid it in all professional correspondence. The “To Whom It May Concern” salutation is not currently totally useless. It has only lost its appeal.
“To Whom It May Concern” remains the appropriate salutation in some professional situations. These include situations where you cannot get details of the contact person or where there are multiple potential readers.
The professional situations where using “To Whom It May Concern” is appropriate include:
- Cover letters
- Recommendation or referral letters
- Prospecting letter
- Company feedback/ suggestion letter
Many jobs require submitting a cover letter alongside your CV or Resume. The cover letter summarizes your professional background and explains why you’re a good fit for the job you are applying for.
More often than not, people in a hiring organization review applicants’ cover letters. These include the hiring manager, the direct supervisor of the position, etc.
In these situations, a generic salutation that addresses whoever is reviewing the letter should be fine.
However, even when there are many potential readers, the best practice is to address your cover letter to the primary point of contact.
Only use the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation if it is impossible to know who exactly will be reading your cover letter.
Recommendation and referral letters
A recommendation letter may also be known as a referral letter. It is a brief account of your experience with someone, extolling the person’s personality and performance in a work-type setting.
A former student or employee may ask you to write a recommendation (or referral) letter to support their application for a program or job. When recommending someone, you may not even know where the person will submit the letter.
Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to use the generic “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, which will address whoever reads the letter.
People in client-facing positions may have to write letters to organizations to see if they are interested in their products.
It is often difficult to tell who the decision-maker is in the prospective client organization.
To avoid addressing your letter to the wrong person, it is better to use the generic “To Whom It May Concern” salutation.
Company feedback/ suggestions letter
To identify areas for improvement, your organization may require you to provide feedback or suggestions.
When not sure who will review submitted feedback, the generic “To Whom It May Concern” salutation is appropriate.
Very often, submitted feedback is reviewed by multiple people in the organization. In such cases, it is acceptable to use the generic salutation as it addresses everyone that will read your submission.
The correct way to use “To Whom It May Concern”
When using “To Whom It May Concern,” capitalize the first letter of each word, follow the phrase with a colon, and skip the next line before starting your letter.
When you must use the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, format it properly. Do this by following relevant capitalization, punctuation, and spacing rules.
Capitalization rule when writing “To Whom It May Concern”
The standard practice when writing “To Whom It May Concern” is to capitalize the first letter of each word in the phrase.
Since the phrase (To Whom It May Concern) replaces someone’s name, it is treated the same way you’ll treat someone’s name in writing.
A name is a proper noun, and proper nouns are written with their first letters capitalized.
Also, it is not polite to write someone’s name in small letters when addressing them, nor is it good to use all caps. That is, you’ll write “John Davids” rather than “john davids” or “JOHN DAVIDS.”
Punctuation rule when writing “To Whom It May Concern”
The standard practice is to punctuate the phrase with a colon.
Following the “To Whom It May Concern” phrase with a comma (,) or period (.) will make it grammatically incorrect.
The spacing rule when writing “To Whom It May Concern”
The standard practice is to let the salutation have a line to itself, then skip the next line.
The line following “To Whom It May Concern” should be empty, while your letter starts two lines after the salutation.
When to avoid using “To Whom It May Concern”
You should avoid using the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation when the identity of your letter’s potential reader is easily discoverable.
The “To Whom It May Concern” salutation should be used as a last resort. You should use it only when all efforts to know the name and role of your letter’s recipient are unsuccessful.
Using “To Whom It May Concern” when the contact person’s identity is easy to get may portray you as lazy. It may mean you didn’t put in the time and effort to find pertinent application information.
Also, modern professional correspondence is expected to be addressed to a specific person.
So, using “To Whom It May Concern” when you shouldn’t may portray you as an archaic person who’s not attuned to the realities of the present professional landscape.
Steps to take before using “To Whom It May Concern”
You can take steps to know the identity of your letter’s potential reader. You should use “To Whom It May Concern” only when these steps fail to produce your contact person’s details.
These steps include:
Check the job posting
When your letter is job application material, carefully review the job posting. Some employers include the name (and position) of the person responsible for reviewing applications within the job posting.
Check the company’s website
Many companies have a page on their website showing the name and position of staff. The page can go by “About Us,” “Meet the Team,” or “Staff.”
Simply look for the manager of the department you are applying to or the head of the HR department.
Check a professional networking platform
Many companies and managers have professional profiles on professional networking. LinkedIn is the most widely used.
Do a simple LinkedIn search to find the manager in the department you are applying to or the hiring manager.
Ask the employer
You may also take the bull by the horns by reaching out to the company.
Contact the company’s customer service. Then ask if they can give you the required information to allow you to address your letter appropriately.
Ask another contact
Having a friend or acquaintance at the company you want to write to makes your job easy.
Simply ask the person if they can help you with the name and role of the point of contact so you can address your letter appropriately.
“To Whom It May Concern” alternatives
There are some alternatives to “To Whom It May Concern” in professional correspondence. These alternatives are:
Dear [Full Name]
One of the best ways to personalize your letter and speak to the contact person directly is to use their full name.
Example: “Dear John Davids”
Using only a first name (e.g., Dear John) is inappropriate when writing someone you have not met before or do not have a close relationship with.
Dear [Title] [ Last name]
An even better alternative to “To Whom It May Concern” is Dear [Title] [Last name]. It perfectly blends personalizing the letter and being formal.
Example: “Dear Dr. Davids” or “Dear Mr. Davids”
However, you should be careful with using pronouns in this salutation format. Ensure that you use the right pronouns.
For example, someone called “Sam Davids” could be a male (Samuel) or female (Samantha). It would be embarrassing to use “Dear Mr. Davids” when Sam Davids is a woman.
Even if you determine that “Sam Davids” is a female, another question would be whether she’s a Miss or Mrs.
When unsure of the right pronoun, use the “Dear [full name]” salutation format instead.
When you cannot find the name of your letter’s recipient, you can use the person’s position.
Example: “Dear Recruitment Manager”
Unlike “To Whom It May Concern,” which is addressed to no one in particular, “Dear [role]” talks to a specific person.
Dear [Team or Department]
Instead of the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation that addresses your letter to anyone, you can narrow it down to a specific team or department.
Example: “Dear Hiring Team” or “Dear Customer Support Team”
This works when you know the department your letter is going to but are unsure which team member is the primary point of contact.
You may use generic but more personalized salutations when sending less formal correspondence like office memos. One widely favored “generic but more personalized” salutation is “Greetings.”
“Greetings” may be widely favored. But there are friendlier ways to address your professional correspondence when using generic salutations. These include simple salutations like “Hello” or “Hi.”
However, these are very casual salutations that may not be suitable in many business situations.
For example, you definitely shouldn’t use them in job application materials. But you may use them when corresponding with a company’s customer support.
“Good Day” is a polite greeting that can be used in different in-person meetings. It qualifies as a casual generic greeting that can be used in less formal correspondence.
“Good Day” is better than casual greetings like “Good Afternoon” or “Good Morning.” This is because you do not know what time of the day your letter will be received.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions:
What punctuation is used after “To Whom It May Concern”?
The correct punctuation to use after “To Whom It May Concern” is a colon(:), and not a comma.
Grammatically, a colon introduces what is to follow. So, a colon is appropriate at the end of the salutation to point the unknown recipient to your letter’s body.
What is the best format for business letters?
The best format for a business letter is the block format. In this format, the letter is left-justified, and the text is single-spaced, except for double spacing between paragraphs.
“To Whom It May Concern” is a salutation traditionally used in professional correspondence when the identity of the contact person is unknown.
“To Whom It May Concern” is now considered outdated because it is easier to know the identity of a contact person.
However, “To Whom It May Concern” is not totally unusable. It can still be used when you cannot get the details of a contact person or when your correspondence has multiple readers (such as in cover letters, recommendation letters, and prospecting letters).
The standard formatting of the salutation is to capitalize the first letter of each word, follow the phrase with a colon, and skip the next line.
Excellent alternatives to “To Whom It May Concern” include “Dear [Full Name],” “Dear [Title] [Last Name],” and “Dear [Role].”
With these tips, you can avoid embarrassing gaffes when addressing your professional correspondence.
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