Dear Sir or Madam: When To Use It And Alternatives

By Chris Kolmar - Oct. 1, 2020

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Standards of etiquette are always changing, and the norms of business letter writing are no different.

It can be difficult and even annoying to try to understand the nuances of this communication style, especially since it isn’t the most common method of communication anymore, but it’s worth putting in the effort. Having a grasp on the connotations of different formats, greetings, and sign-offs involved in professional correspondence can help you make the best impression possible, especially when you’re writing a cover letter to go with your resume.

One of the trickiest and most powerful of these nuances is your salutation. It sets the tone for the rest of your letter and can create a strong first impression, or it can make it difficult for you to win the reader over with the rest of your letter.

So, how do you know which one to use? Should you put “Dear Sir or Madam,” “To Whom it May Concern,” or the person’s name?

In this article, you’ll learn how to think this through so that you can decide what is most appropriate for your situation.

Is Dear Sir or Madam Acceptable?

While the classic greeting, “Dear Sir or Madam,” is still acceptable, it should be used with caution. Because it is an old standard, it can sound stuffy, and those who don’t conform to binary genders may be offended by this salutation — not the way you want to start off your first interaction with a potential employer.

In addition, using this greeting can make you look lazy. It’s usually possible to find the recipient’s name by looking in the company’s online directory or by doing a quick LinkedIn search. Even if you can’t find a name (and some companies like to keep this information private to protect their hiring managers from overenthusiastic applicants), you should be able to at least find a department or position name that you can address.

Using such a generic greeting can also make it sound like it’s the same cover letter that you sent to five other companies. This can not only make you sound insincere, but it can also raise red flags and make the recipient think that you don’t truly care about getting the position.

If you’ve done your research and feel as though you know enough about your audience to be able to avoid these pitfalls, this greeting can be an acceptable way to open your letter if you have little to no information about your recipient. You’ll just have to spend some extra effort in the body of your letter to show that you did your research on the company and position.

Dear Sir or Madam Cover Letter vs. Dear Sir or Madam Email

Because “Dear Sir or Madam” is so formal, it’s usually inappropriate to use in an informal email. If you can, try to use the email address you’re sending your message to to create a more personalized greeting. For example, if the email address is recruiting@company.com, you could say, “Dear Recruitment Team.” Depending on the type of job you’re applying for, you can also keep it short and sweet stick to a less formal greeting like “Hello.”

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A cover letter is more formal than an email, but you should still use “Dear Sir or Madam” sparingly. As with an email, make every effort to be as specific as possible. If you do find that you need to use this greeting, make sure you use the body of your letter to show that you’ve done your research on the company and position.

Dear Sir or Madam Alternatives

So, what salutation should you use instead of “Dear Sir or Madam”? The best option is always to use the recipient’s name, if possible. If you weren’t given a name, try looking it up on the company’s website or searching the position on LinkedIn. To make a great impression, you can even call the company to ask who your letter should be addressed to. This will show that you care and that you are someone who goes above and beyond to get results and build relationships.

If you still can’t find a name, here are some other alternatives you can use for your cover letter:

  • Dear [Position Title]

  • Dear Hiring Manager

  • Dear [First Name]

  • Dear Recruiter

  • Dear Customer Service Team

  • Dear Search Committee

  • Dear [Potential Future Boss’s Title]

  • Dear [Department Name] Manager

Since email is less formal, here are some additional greetings that are appropriate to use there:

  • Hello, [Team or Department Name]

  • Hello, [Company Name]

  • Good morning

  • Hello

  • I hope this email finds you well

Be careful when using “Hello” instead of “Dear,” as it is significantly less formal. Know your audience and stick to the classic “Dear” for companies that might appreciate the added professionalism.

If you’re applying for a job with a super trendy tech company, though, “Hello” will probably suffice. You can also always use the greetings that you would use in a cover letter.

Dear Sir or Madam vs. To Whom It May Concern

Even though they sound interchangeable, there are some differences between “Dear Sir or Madam” and “To Whom it May Concern.” If you do decide that a generic greeting like these is best for your letter or email, you should know which one is most appropriate for your particular use.

Use “Dear Sir or Madam” when you know that you are writing to an individual (or a small group of individuals) but don’t know their name or gender. This makes it the best choice for a cover letter or email that you’re sending with your resume as a part of a job application, as you know you’re addressing a specific hiring manager or team or recruiters.

If the concerns in your letter or email could be addressed by a wide variety of people or if you don’t know who it should go to, use “To Whom it May Concern.” This is appropriate to use when you’re asking general support questions or looking for information rather than applying for a specific position. As with “Dear Sir or Madam,” you should always try to find an individual’s name or department name, but if you can’t, this is a good way to cover your bases and address the organization as a whole.

Dear Sir or Madam, or Something Else?

When you’re deciding how to open your letter or email that is going to a specific individual or small group, there are some considerations to keep in mind.

If you do know the recipient’s name, ask yourself:

  • Do I have a strong relationship with the recipient?

  • If yes: Use “Dear” or “Hello,” followed by their first name.

  • If no: Use “Dear” or “Hello” followed by their first and last name or “Dear Ms./Mr. [Last Name].”

If you don’t know the recipient’s name and can’t find it:

  • Do you know their job title?

  • If yes: Use “Dear [Job Title]”

  • If no: If you know their gender, use “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam.” If you don’t know their gender or have any doubts, use the most specific team or organization name that you can.

Write With Confidence

No matter what salutation you choose to use, the most important thing is to make sure the rest of your letter is professional, friendly, and memorable.

Start building a relationship from your first line. Show that you’ve done your homework and know about the company and the position you’re applying for, and explain why you would love to be a part of it.

Make yourself seem human and create an impression by including anecdotes about your interactions with the company as well as about your skills and qualifications that would make you a valuable asset to them. Demonstrate your professionalism by using correct grammar and punctuation — have someone else proofread it for you, if need be.

Correct grammar should begin with your greeting, so be sure you check it thoroughly. Here are some tips that you should use to make sure you’re punctuating it correctly:

  • Capitalize every word in “To Whom it May Concern” except the “it.”

  • Capitalize proper nouns.

  • Use a comma or colon at the end of your salutation. A colon is typically more formal than a comma, but both are acceptable and professional.

  • Add an extra line space between your greeting and the first line of your letter or email.

Whatever greeting you choose, do your best to be respectful and show that you truly want to build a relationship with the recipient and the organization. Use your gut and your knowledge of the industry to decide what tone you should use, beginning with your salutation and ending with your sign-off. If you can, ask other experienced professionals what they would want to see in a letter and to give you feedback. Take care with every piece of correspondence you send out, as this is how you are building a picture of yourself for the organization.

At the end of the day, this is what will make the good impression that could get you an interview.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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