Never Write "To Whom It May Concern"

I’ve received cover letters with that opening line. I’ve received PR pitches with that same opening line. I’ve also received opening lines like:

  • Dear sirs
  • Dear sir or madam
  • Attn: personnel
  • Dear blogger or expert

In every single one of these cases, these people wanted me to do something for them. Read their resume, give them an interview, review their product or talk with them about their latest study’s findings. Yet, they couldn’t be bothered to figure out my name.

(This seems especially egregious on e-mails directed at me from this site. The title of this site is Rehaul by Lance Haun. My name is right there people.)

Now at times, I could care less that you canned up a letter to me. Sometimes a talent need is important enough to disregard something like that. Sometimes I want to cover something bad enough that I am willing to put aside bad PR. But if you are going to broadcast your message without personalization though, take out the “To Whom It May Concern” or any other phrases that highlight the fact that you didn’t feel it necessary to figure out my name. Cut straight to the point and don’t tell me that you just love my company or my site. A company or site that you couldn’t even name.

Personalization for hiring

If you do want to personalize a cover letter or other correspondence with a company you are trying to get hired at, it is a pretty simple two step process:

  1. Search LinkedIn for the company and see if the person pops up.
  2. If no luck, call and get the information.

The key here is maximizing your time. You don’t want to be spending 15-20 minutes researching the name of the recruiter or hiring manager online. If I can’t find the information on LinkedIn quickly, I simply call the receptionist and ask who I would address my correspondence to for XYZ position. At worst, it would be a transfer to a person in recruiting.

This is, at worst, a five minute process. I know us Gen Yers hate the phone but the quick phone call is ridiculously more efficient in this case. Just do it. And nobody has to know it is you calling anyway.

Personalization for PR

While I think of job hunting as an amateur sport where some leeway can be given to candidates who aren’t professional job seekers, public relations is an entirely different animal. For one, PR pros are well aware that even low grade bloggers like myself receive a couple dozen press releases and communications a week. They should also be well aware that there are companies that sell lists of targeted bloggers and almost every one of those comes with a full name.

In short, there is no excuse for it. This is what you are paid to do and you are doing it poorly.

I think success is a fairly simple process for PR pros:

  1. They build relationships with media outlets before they need them
  2. They figure out what kind of stories they like to run, how they like being communicated with, etc
  3. They follow that formula. All of the time.

I can name off of my head the dozen or so PR pros that actually do this out of the hundreds I’ve received releases from. Most of them have my phone number (but don’t use it). They send me one or two things a month max. They stay in contact with me if they don’t have much to push out. They’ve never pushed garbage to me.

Does their stuff get covered? Not all of the time. In fact, I still have two very good PR pros I’ve done no stories for. These folks are pros though and they understand why and they continue to stay in positive contact with me.

Bottom line

Personalization is an absolute necessity (and bare minimum) if your job is communicating with media professionals. If you’re in a job hunt, it is also a smart idea to not fake the personalization. You either have to do it for real or you don’t do it at all. Just don’t leave that “To Whom It May Concern” red flag up there.

Where are you on this? Do you personalize when you send correspondence or cover letters? How about PR pros?

31 thoughts on “Never Write "To Whom It May Concern"

  1. Thanks so much for letting us know the obvious, Mr. Haun. Now could you answer a question that would actually be helpful to people?
    What if there is no possible way to get a name after trying for days instead of just 5 or 20 minutes? What if you happen to be sending out resumes to a few jobs you would like and 400 jobs you will hate?
    Do you have any suggestions about what can be done to personalize a resume if the above situations occur? In reality, these situations do occur.

    • If you’re trying for days to figure out the name, you’re wasting time. If you can’t find it in a reasonable time frame, they probably aren’t getting many (if any) personalized notes. In that case, forget personalization and just go for a knockout resume.

      As for the jobs conundrum, I don’t know what to tell you. The jobs that are there are what’s available. If you only like a few of the jobs available in your industry, there is probably some serious career exploration that I can’t address in long form here. It isn’t terribly simple unfortunately.

    • We received “Dear Sirs” entirely too often. Even though I did review some resumes, most of the time a female would be reviewing them and our manager group was a mix so you had a 50/50 chance of getting it wrong and a 100 percent chance of being totally oblivious to why it is such an issue.

  2. I use “To Whom It May Concern” all of the time. It is appropriate, formal and traditional.
    I am an HR professional over 15 years of experience across multiple industries. I cannot tell you how many times I have received cover letters directed to the WRONG hiring manager or other individual. The result comes off as particularly bad if the applicant has somehow gotten out-date information and directs their correspondence to someone who has left the company.
    This is why you can’t go wrong with “To Whom It May Concern”.
    Thanks.

    • Directing it to the wrong hiring manager can be a problem but honestly, penalizing a candidate for doing research rather than a blind send with a generic greeting (that can be copied and pasted over and over) seems a tad strange to me. I argue that if you know or can reasonably ascertain a name, using it is more appropriate, formal and traditional than any generic greeting.

  3. Lance,

    Personalization always works. I would counsel against the common problem of taking this too far. This happens often in personal meetings. As in “Lance, I think you would agree that….. Interesting point, LANCE, yadayadayada.” Too much of a good thing….

  4. Alright lance, so what do you put when you apply to a large organization where your resume may pass through multiple hands? Or a job online to a national company?

  5. I’m totally with you. No “To Whoms”. But I have a bigger problem with what seems to be going on in hiring today. Companies want your info in their ATS (which often translates over into their HRIS system automatically upon hire, thereby saving them time, money, and extra human error), but what I see it doing more is creating black holes in recruiting departments. Recruiters must LOVE this, since they’re otherwise going to get calls left and right. But the systems they’ve set up create anonymity and encourage it–why not just give them what they so obviously want?

    (step off soap box). Nice job, though, and good luck in the job search!

  6. i thank you.my dear sir………i got the good knowledge from you i want to you.please keep continue same support……….

  7. Sometimes, it truly is impossible to get a name. I always personalize EVERY cover letter I’ve written because I myself hate receiving messages and the like that seem like they were “mass communicated.” For instance, I applied for an internship at Coca-Cola and couldn’t find the name of the person no matter how much research online and calling I did. I wasted so much time trying to find it.

    I think people who seek new talent should put their names, initials, something so that people can address them appropriately if the expectation is to personalize correspondence … unless you are purposely testing the applicants’ ability to research.

    By the way, I also tailor my skills and comments to the organization I’m applying for, so if it says “To Whom It May Concern,” at least the organization knows that I took the time to construct a paragraph showing how I know and align with them as an organization.

  8. I’ve always tried to personalize my cover letter but have to admit I’ve not done the phone call. Not only does it seem easy, it is, and I will practice it. Thanks for the smack up-topside my head.

  9. Dear Mr. Lance Haun:

    While recognizing that the majority of Americans make this same mistake, I still feel the need to point out to the public that stating “I could care less” is a tripping point for those of us who know what you really mean is “I couldn’t care less”. The increasing abundance of lazy-grammar has me depressed.

  10. I should add that I’m not a grammar policewoman, yet the increasingly common mistakes in a public forum (blogs, retail signs, newspapers, online articles) is distressing. I think that making yourself a published resource requires that you carry some responsibility to the public.

  11. Jessica, that is a peeve of mine also. Plus in the last couple of days I’ve seen ‘then’ used for ‘than’ in three different places. Proofread!

    As for the subject here, also be careful of spelling. ASK for the spelling if your call is successful. It’s amazing how many times I get emails to Cheryl when my name is right there in my address.

  12. Dear Mr. Haun:

    I’ve been in the Staffing/Hr field for over thirty years. To whom . . .has been used for many years and is a bit dated and lacks personalization. That said, After looking at several hundred resumes in a week’s time or a day, I really don’t care how they are addressed. I do notice the “canned” cover letters but if the resume fits I still call. I am trying to fill jobs. Many candidates don’t even know what Linked In is, struggle with the Boards, and are otherwise very unsophisitcted at job search. Unlike your self and many of us they are unfamiliar with job search formats. They may be 20-25 year veterans on a job and are totally lost and confused and unsure of the process. They just want a job-give them a break. That said, your comments seem a bit egotistical and self serving. In you posted bio that I guess you wrote, you are a “proud graduate of”, when not working you “like to recreate in the Northwest Forest”, -what’s this a walk in the woods, or rock climbing or whitewater canoeing-, married to “my flawless wife” -mine sure isn’t as most are not -. You’ve been in this business only five years:A blip in a career. So, please, . . . give us and candidates a break. They just want a job.

    • I’m all for giving candidates a break Steve. While you were researching, did you find my post about forgiving minor spelling mistakes on resumes? Look at how harshly your colleagues come down on people.

      Attacking my experience is a pretty common way to silence a difference of opinion without providing any sensible counter-argument. People come to this blog to be MORE sophisticated in their job search. And to stand out, I don’t think you should write to whom it may concern. Ever.

      I hire for experience too. But I bet personally addressed cover letters catch your eye better.

      • Lance,

        I really wans’t attacking anything to silence a difference of opinion. I was attempting to point out that some people are not necessarily college educated, web trained professionals. Many, particularly these days, come from having long held jobs and are unaware of how to go about a search and struggle even with company provided outplacement counseeling and cringe at the thought of an interview. Regarding your typos in your blogs -everyone is human and I don’t care about that. As to your e3xperience, I wasn’t attacking it. I wanted to point out your lack of it which clouds your objectivity. Personally I always personalize my letters but I know how to do that.
        Steve

  13. I think there is way too much emphasis on such trivia. Be courteous, clear and concise. If you can not find the exact name of the person you are writing to; identify them by their title (example: Human Resource Manager). If all else fails, ‘To Whom It May Concern’ will suffice. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

  14. Thank you for being blatantly honest. It is good to know how our written communication is being perceived. I am guilty of using of being ‘impersonal’. Now I know better. I particularly like the idea of using technology (such as LinkedIn) to find the name of the addressee. I believe that a little investment of time to do online research is justified as it can have a positive influence the outcome of the communication.

  15. Using “To Whom It May Concern” is one way of opening a formal letter. I agree that it would really be best to personalize your correspondence. However, for fresh graduates wherein they just got the “job opening” from networking sites, it would really be difficult to catch or get the names of the Human Resource personnel whom they are trying to send their letters to. I would still suggest that applicants do a research about the company they are applying to but if it takes too much of their time, I believe, salutations like this will do.

    Just sharing my thought though.

    Cheers,
    Natalie Loopbaanadvies

  16. I think it comes down to plain and simple laziness! It takes time to do the research and find out who the letter or resume should be sent directly to, however in my experience the payoff is greater than the little bit of time it takes to do it right.
    If students would simply break it down to a step by step process, the rewards will show up quickly.

    Peace,
    Doug

  17. I completely agree with the notion of doing the research to find the appropriate name of the addressee whenever possible. However, in the aging world of the Internet, there are increasing cases where job/career postings are from anonymous sources. Some companies are listed as “Company Confidential”. In these cases, would it be most appropriate to use no introductory greeting at all, or is there something that would respectfully address a company employee, who may or may not be the president/ceo/human resources/dept. head etc. ? Sincere thanks!

  18. So I have a new situation to throw out there. A teacher needs a letter of rec for a teaching position at a school. The hiring packet would normally go to the principal, but the current principal is retiring. The packet needs to go out before the new principal is officially chosen. How would you address the rec letter in this case. I actually called the school and explained this in general terms and the person who answered the phone said, “I guess you could write it, ‘To Whom it May Concern?'” Even though this is a letter of rec and even the office personnel stated to write it this way— that person may not be familiar with avoiding dated salutations either. So I am not looking to put trust in this advice. Notice the questioning tone in her voice when she told me what I could write. How would you address this? Any ideas out there.

  19. Hello! What about websites where there is a contact person, but that person is not the hiring manager? I am talking about sites like edjoin where they have teaching positions, office support, etc? They require three letters of recommendation, so would you just address your letter of introduction to the contact person?

    Thanks for any help.

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