Learn How to Address a Business or Professional Letter

Man opening mail in home office
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In this era of texting and direct messages, it's sometimes hard to remember everything you learned in school about writing formal letters. You might go years in your career without having to write more than a professional-looking email. When it comes to job searching, however, you need to pull out all the stops. Casual just won't do when you're trying to impress a hiring manager and stand out from your competition. Using the correct way to address a business or professional letter is essential for your career-related and business communications.

When you address your letters the right way, you'll never have to worry about starting off the interaction on the wrong foot, before the recipient even gets a chance to read your message.

First and foremost, know that when you’re writing a letter or sending an email message for employment or business purposes, it's important to address the individual to whom you are writing formally, unless you know them extremely well. If you’re unsure if you should use a formal or casual (first name) form of address, err on the side of safety and use the formal designation.

How to Address a Formal Letter: Mr., Dr., Ms., or Mrs.

The appropriate title to use when writing to a man is Mr. For a woman, use Ms., even if you know the addressee's marital status, as Ms. is more professional than Miss or Mrs. For a medical doctor or someone with a Ph.D., use Dr. as a title. Alternatively, you can also use “Professor” if you are writing to a university or college faculty member.

If you don't know the gender identity of the person you're addressing, use a gender-neutral greeting and simply include their first and last name, e.g., "Dear Tristan Dolan."

Quite a few letter salutations are appropriate for business and employment-related correspondence. For example:

Letter Greeting Examples

  • Dear Mr. Smith
  • Dear Mr. Jones
  • Dear Ms. Markham
  • Dear Kiley Doe
  • Dear Dr. Haven
  • Dear Professor Jones

Follow the greeting with a colon or comma, a line break, and then start the first paragraph of your letter. For example:

Dear Mr. Smith:
First paragraph of letter.

Finding a Contact Person

You don't absolutely need to know the name of the person you're addressing – but it doesn't hurt, especially if you're trying to score a job interview. Commonly, employers fail to provide a contact name in a job advertisement, especially on large job search sites.

It’s worth trying to find the contact person, however, because taking the time to discover that person's name will demonstrate personal initiative. It also shows an attention to detail that will speak well for you when your resume is being reviewed.

The best way to find the name of a contact at the company is to ask. If you're networking your way into a position, this is pretty easy – just make a note to ask your friend or colleague for the name and email address of the best person to talk to about the position. Barring that, call the main number of the company and ask the receptionist for the name and contact information of the human resources (HR) manager in charge of hiring (or the head of such-and-such department, etc.).

If neither of those methods work, you can often uncover the information you're seeking by doing a little internet sleuthing. Start with the company's website and look for listed personnel. You'll often see an HR contact on the personnel page or company directory.

If that doesn't yield results, it's time to hit LinkedIn and do an advanced search for job titles and company names. In the process, you might even find another connection to the person you're looking for. That’s never a bad thing when you're trying to get a human being to look at your resume.

When You Don't Have a Contact Person

If you don't have a contact person at the company, either leave off the salutation from your cover letter and start with the first paragraph or use a general salutation. For example:

Follow the general salutation with a colon, just like this:

To Whom It May Concern:
First paragraph of letter.

A Great Skill to Have

Properly addressing a business or professional letter isn’t a skill you’ll only need when you’re searching for jobs. Once you're employed, you’ll find there will be times when you'll need to write letters that require formal addresses and salutations.