When to use to whom it may concern in a letter?

To Whom It May Concern - Meaning & Definition

Whether you're writing an e-mail or preparing a physical letter, it's important to start every business communication or cover letter with an appropriate greeting to the recipient. A common professional salutation is “To Whom It May Concern”. To some people, this may seem a rather outdated way to start an honest conversation, but there are times when it's the most appropriate. There are various instances, in fact, when it's still the best option. Here are a few tips to help you.

10 instances of when to use “to whom it may concern” in your letter/ e-mail

1. Ask about the progress and details of a particular project in a cover letter

You could use “To Whom It May Concern” as an opening sentence when asking about the status of a project that you have been working on. It may be that the project is for a group of people from a different company or a different department within your organisation, and you don't know any of their names. This approach, though very formal and anonymous, could be appropriate at certain times, but not if speaking to an individual on a regular basis.

2. Use it when providing a character reference with a positive note

It's common in business for managers to be asked to provide a character reference that an individual may want to use in the future for different company interviews. Using the opening line “To Whom It May Concern” enables the manager to inject a professional tone, adding weight to the message or cover letter itself. If you've been particularly pleased with the employee's performance during their time with you, this is a good opportunity for you to communicate that to a manager or director.

3. It's useful when registering formal complaints or recording a specific employee experience

If you are lodging a complaint with a member of a company's senior management team, or even someone on the board of directors, it can be useful to use “To Whom It May Concern” as a generic greeting in your letter. Your complaint may reach an administrator, a customer service associate, the manager responsible or even the CEO, so this is an appropriate opening line because you can't be sure who will actually read it, and of course multiple individuals could end up dealing with the issue over a period of time.

4. Writing to a person you've never met or responding to online surveys

“To Whom It May Concern” is a good opening salutation when writing a letter or email to introduce yourself, whether you're doing so on a personal or professional level, or perhaps when completing a survey. Ideally, you should try to find out the name of the specific individual that you're addressing. This will make the letter much more effective. Additionally, it will help you follow up if you don't receive a response from your initial inquiry. If you do know who you're writing to within the company, it's better to use their name in the communication instead.

5. Check if you don't really need to use it in a business correspondence

You can search the company website for the names of the direct managers or various skilled employees who work there, including those conducting interviews, such as a hiring manager. If you can't find them on the website, try searching LinkedIn, or asking someone who works there. You may want to contact the HR department about your issue regarding job satisfaction, for example. To Whom It May Concern is a polite way to say you want to talk to someone who works there, but if you can find the name of the appropriate person by all means do so.

6. Think about the alternatives

It's wise to think about your particular message, and the best way it can be received by that particular person. An alternative communication could read Dear Recruiting Manager, Dear HR Director, Dear Human Resources Supervisor, etc. If you know the job title of the person at the company you're writing to but not his or her name, this could be a more suitable option. If it's part of the exit interview process, you're likely to already know the names of the relevant people.

7. Use it to open a letter of introduction or to provide uninvited insight

As a general rule, “To Whom It May Concern” is best used when there will be multiple recipients that you don't know, especially perhaps if you're not au fait with the company culture. With a letter of recommendation for someone with whom you worked in the past, this is the ideal phrase to use. That way, the person you're recommending will be able to use copies of that letter or email on many occasions for several years to come.

8. Is this greeting still relevant?

If you were writing a business letter to support a job application or as part of a structured interview process and you don't know the name of the hiring manager or the people in the recruitment team, “To Whom It May Concern” is a good way to open the conversation. The greeting itself was used extensively before the development of the internet, but now that the web is so prevalent it has become far less common. The vast majority of job vacancy applications begin with a listing found online, so usually the name of the company person responsible for recruitment will actually be already listed.

9. It's often used to respond to a business enquiry or at the comments section of a survey

There are times when a business team or potential customer will be contacted via an automated message, either online or by phone, and if the name of the individual who made contact isn't known then To Whom It May Concern can be used as formal correspondence for that recipient. As with all business-related communication, the sender needs to always think about who is on the receiving end of their questions, answers or messages, and the company policies regarding interview questions and the like.

10. This greeting can be used when contacting the HR department about exit interviews or with a recommendation letter

If you've been asked to pass on opinions about a company after leaving a job, for example, you should send your honest feedback to HR first, but you can also address it to someone else if you aren't sure who handles the review process. An exit interview can be such an occasion, as it provides an opportunity to gather feedback about an employee‘s experience. This can help organisations identify areas for improvement and in the process to reduce future staff turnover.

While the phrase “To Whom It May Concern” is no longer as relevant as a type of correspondence as it was in the past, there is still a place for it in the business sector. As it's always been, it's appropriate in cases where you don't actually know the name of the recipient or recipients, such as when using constructive feedback to department heads in exit interviews or commencing a casual conversation about the company's management style. Be sure to capitalise each word when it's used at the beginning of a business email or letter.

We hope you found this article on when to use “To Whom It May Concern” helpful. If you would like to explore more on workplace etiquette and leading industry insights, feel free to visit our Career Advice section.

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