If you need to reach out to someone but don't know their name, what do you do? Well, the answer used to be, "To Whom It May Concern."

Why did this stuffy-sounding phrase become the go-to form of address for unknown recipients? Well, back in the day (before Google, basically), it was a lot harder to find basic information about people you didn't know.

But since people still had to apply for jobs and get in touch with companies, a standard solution seemed helpful. Thus, "To Whom..." started being used.

But the times they are a-changin'.

So how do you address a cover letter or email to someone you've never met, or whose name you just can't find, in the 21st century?

Don't worry - there are many alternatives to the stodgy, old-fashioned "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam".

In this article, we'll look at:

  • how to address a letter in the first place (taking into account tone, formality, titles, and gender neutrality)
  • all the most common ways to address someone without knowing their name, and when/why you might use each
  • how you can discover someone's name if you really want to personalize your letter
  • when it actually is acceptable to use "To Whom It May Concern"

Alright - let's do this.

How to Address a Letter in the First Place

First of all, it helps to know how exactly to start your letter in the first place. This may seem obvious, but there are a few things to consider.

Tone and Formality

When you're communicating with someone you don't know, you should put some thought into how you address them. Even if you know their name, it's not like you're buddies - yet. So you probably wouldn't start a letter with "Hey babe, what's up?"

So what do you say? Well, you can usually count on "Dear [name]" (or any of the other options below if you don't know their name) - it's formal but not stuffy, and it's a pretty widely-accepted way of starting a written communication (at least in the States).

You should probably avoid any language that's too familiar or where your meaning could be misconstrued (see the "Hey babe" above). Until you've established a bit of a rapport with this person, keep it polite and basic.

Titles and Gender Neutrality

If you know the person's name, you have a couple options when addressing them.

You might want to address them as Ms. X or Mr. Y. Just make sure you know how that person identifies so you can use the proper title. If you're not sure, you can try to find out more information (see methods below) or choose some other form of address.

For women/femmes, be aware of whether you use Miss, Mrs, or Ms. The safest bet is to use "Ms.", as it doesn't imply a married or single status. If you know that the person prefers one over the others (you see "Please contact Miss Jennifer Morgan for more information" or something similar), use that.

If you want to discover how someone identifies, you can try to find them on social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram are probably your best bets). Sometimes people will list their pronouns in their profiles, like "Jennifer Morgan, she/her" or "AJ DePew, they/them". Not everyone does this, but it's becoming more common.

Lastly, if someone has a Doctorate or other official title/honorific, you should address them that way. For example, "Dear Dr. Morgan" or "Dear Professor DePew".

Not all of this applies if you don't know the person's name. But it's still good to keep in mind when communicating with someone you don't know.

Now let's get into those alternative forms of address.

Alternatives to "To Whom It May Concern"

If you don't know the name of the person to whom you're writing, that's ok. There are still some decent options that will let them know that you did your research and you care.

Dear (Position/Job Title), like "Dear Director of Sales"

If you're applying for a job in, say, the Sales department, chances are someone with the title "Director of Sales" will be your boss (or your boss's boss...).

And while you most likely aren't applying directly to that person (that is, they won't be the first to see your application/cover letter), they're still a relevant person/position to whom to address your communication.

Using this form of address shows that you've at least done your homework regarding the position for which you're applying, how the departments are structured, and so on.

Dear (Team/Department), like "Dear Social Media Department" or "Dear Social Media Team"

If you're not sure how the company is structured, or what positions you might interact with if you get the job, you can take it step back.

Starting off with "Dear Social Media Department" isn't quite as direct as singling out one person, but it's still relevant and thoughtful.

Using this type of address works well if you're applying to a larger company/team and it's really hard to single out one position or person who will definitely see your application.

Keeping it Casual with "Greetings", "Hello", "Good afternoon" and so on

We've all probably gotten emails that start with "Hi there!" or just "Hello". These forms of address are certainly more casual than "Dear X", but they might be the right choice in certain situations.

If you can't find out any specific information about where your application might be going, something like "Hello there" or "Hi there" is a good neutral option. If you're sending your email first thing in the morning, "Good morning" also works well.

It will be fairly obvious that you have no idea to whom you're speaking, but at least you're being polite and neutral.

Before using this option, however, it might be a good idea to do some research into the company's culture. If it seems like they're fairly relaxed and casual, these greetings are probably ok.

Dear (Name of person who'd be your boss/to whom you'd report)

Now, perhaps you don't know exactly to whom you're applying or sending that cover letter. But you might be able to figure out who your boss would be (if you got the job).

Dig into that company website. Read the bios, figure out who's on what team, and who's in charge of what. If you can learn to whom you'd report, you can address your letter to them.

Sure it sounds ambitious (and maybe a tad presumptuous?) but it does show that you know how to do your research. And that you care about the job, the company, and putting your most knowledgeable foot forward.

Dear (Name of the head of the department to which you're applying)

If you're not sure who would be your boss if you got the job, but you still want to use someone's name, zoom out a bit. You can likely figure out who's the head of whatever department you'd join if you got the position.

Once you've found that person, write your letter to them. Again, it's not the most direct (and they likely won't even seen your application, at least not in the beginning), but it's better than "To Whom It May Concern", that's for sure.

And again, similar to the previous option, it shows that you're trying to learn as much about the company as possible.

Dear (Name of recruiter)

If you know the name of the recruiter who'll be reviewing your application, you can certainly address your cover letter to them. It might take a little effort to figure that out, but it does make your cover letter/application stand out.

If you're working with a recruiter, you can ask them. You can also get in touch with the company and see if they'll tell you who that person is. But if you can't figure that out...

Dear (Recruiting Manager or Hiring Manager)

Sometimes those names really are elusive. But it's a pretty good guess to assume that a recruitment or hiring manager will be involved in the process. So addressing your letter to the position might get their attention.

Dear (Position for which you're applying) Hiring Manager, like "Dear Network Engineering Hiring Manager"

When you want to be as specific as you can, but don't know a name, you can always address your communication to the team or committee that's actually hiring you.

To do that, just list the roll you're applying for (like Network Engineer, Social Media Manager, or Database Analyst) followed by "Search Committee", "Hiring Manager", or "Hiring Team" – for example, "Dear Network Engineer Hiring Team".

This way you show that you're aware of the department you'd be part of if you get the job and you're directing your inquiry to them.

Dear (Department) Head, or Dear Head of (Department)

If you want to target the head of your (hopefully) future team, you can address your letter to the head of that department.

It's ok if you don't know their name – just say something like "Dear Network Engineering Department Head".

Dear (Name of referral)

Lastly, if you know someone who works at the company, and they've given you a referral, you can always address your letter to them.

This is particularly effective because it shows that you have a relationship with someone who already works there, and you can be fairly sure that your letter/application will make it past the "first look".

Your friend or acquaintance can check out your letter and then decide who the best person would be to review it.

Bonus: Dear (Full name)

If you find the name of someone on the hiring committee or in the department to which you're applying, that's great. But what if you're not familiar with the origins of that name, and how people are addressed in that part of the world?

In this case, it can be a good idea to use the person's full name. In some places, like Hungary, Taiwan, or Japan, for example, people list their last names first. So by using their full name, you're not presuming to call them by only their first (or last) name.

How to find the right contact person

If you're determined to find a name to which to address your letter, there are a number of ways you can go about it. You can:

  • Ask your recruiter or HR rep - they can often help you get that info
  • Look on the company website - the "About Us" page often has tons of helpful info and details about the team
  • Look in the job application/description - sometimes there are instructions there
  • Look on LinkedIn - this is often the go-to resource for job seekers, as many people are on LinkedIn and have publicly visible profiles
  • If you know someone at the company/in the department, ask them
  • Call and ask the office manager/administrative assistant (and be honest about why you're calling - say you want to personalize your cover letter and you were hoping they could help point you in the right direction)

When it's ok to use "To Whom It May Concern"

There are a few situations where it's appropriate to use "To Whom It May Concern". Mostly they occur when you don't need or want to know the name of the person you're addressing.

So you can use that phrase when:

  • You're providing a recommendation or a reference check for someone else (the company doesn't expect you to research them and find the exact right person to address the letter to).
  • You're submitting a complaint to a company (if you received a defective product, weren't satisfied with their customer service, and so on).
  • You're introducing yourself to someone you've never met and you don't know much about (like if someone requested a quote from you for a service, and so on).

Now you know how to address your correspondence when you don't know your reader's name. See, it's not as scary (or as outdated) as it seems.