HRFilter: To whom...should I address the cover letter to?
September 27, 2016 3:35 PM   Subscribe

I was taught "Dear Sir or Madam" was acceptable for cold job applications, but in my recent round of job searching, I'm seeing multiple blog posts talking about cover letters saying that this is no longer acceptable and shows a lack of initiative on the side of the job seeker. Is this so, HR professionals of MetaFilter?

I'm applying to a job at a VERY large academic institution for a non-teaching job. Through some legwork drilling down through the website, I've narrowed down the HR staff assigned to the unit the job is attached to. One is very senior, who has an executive assistant, and one is a coordinator.

Would it be weird for me to email to one of them letting them know that I was going to apply (it's all done through an automated online system), but was wondering to whom the letter ought to be addressed?

This seems a little over-the-top to me, but what do I know?

If you think this is the proper course of action, do you think it should go to the coordinator? The executive assistant? The executive?

In case it matters, this is a non-teaching associate/assistant director level position. (I'm a little clueless because I've been recruited by former colleagues for nearly all of my former positions.)
posted by smirkette to Work & Money (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Just finished this process. I did a little checking around and found the posting HR reps name. Then addressed further correapondence to the HR rep and when applicable, the hiring manager.

On edit: Oh yeah, I start on Monday.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:54 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I pretty much toss any cover letter that ISN'T addressed to me. The job posting does not give my name but does give the library I manage, and two seconds of googling, or calling to ask, or stopping in! will give my name. Calling HR to find the hiring manager's name and proper honourific would be totally fine. I usually get around 75 applicants per posting and tossing 50 "to whom it may be concerned/hiring manager/wrong name" gets me down to 20 or so possible candidates (most of whom I either know or is one degree separated) as I would expect applicants to be attending the same conferences and learning opportunities as me. This is also how I got MY job. I personally addressed the CL, had previously met the CEO at a conference, met them at another conference between the application and interview and met them at a third conference in between the interview and hire (twice in less than a week!).
posted by saucysault at 3:56 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

We just finished a hiring process and I got a couple addressed to Dear Hiring Committee (I am at an academic library) and that was fine. There were a few who did the name thing...but some of them got the right person and some didn't (and they could have called or asked and found out!). In my opinion, Dear Hiring Committee is better than the wrong person.
posted by eleanna at 4:07 PM on September 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I promise not to threadsit, but to follow up re: calling: of the three possible contacts, which do you think I should contact with this question: the senior person, their executive assistant, or the coordinator? (The posting HR rep is not listed anywhere on the post, or I'd start there.)
posted by smirkette at 4:10 PM on September 27, 2016

Ask A Manger noted that if a name is included with the job posting you should address it to that person, rather than doing sleuthing to find the possible hiring manager, because addressing it to someone not mentioned in the ad gives the impression that you aren't respecting the instructions they gave you.

I've been hired for every academic job I ever got (and offered a lot of interviews) with letters addressed to "Dear Members of the Search Committee," because all hiring for the type of academic library positions I work in is done by search committee.
posted by MsMolly at 4:11 PM on September 27, 2016 [30 favorites]

I've had a lot more experience on the academic/teaching side, but assuming that HR has any genuine involvement in the first part of an academic institution job search seems like a pretty big assumption unless you've a reason to believe it's true. It seems equally likely your future direct supervisor, or their staff, or a committee will read your letter first.

Calling whoever answers the phone for the unit and asking them is probably the safest option if you want to personalize things without annoying anyone or leaving a paper trail that could possibly hurt your application. (Though, for what it's worth, both "to whom it may concern" and "Dear title" or "Dear committee" sound a lot less bizarre than using "madam" in modern English, at least to my non-HR-professional ears.)
posted by eotvos at 4:13 PM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just finished going through a bunch of applications for a non-teaching position at a university. Unless there's a name clearly in the posting, I would use "To whom it may concern", address the department, or the hiring committee. For this posting, I don't think we were able to put a name in the description (we're using the campus system) but people addressed it to my former boss (who retired in January), me (director of the library), my assistant, the front desk person for our institute, the professor (long since dead) for whom the library was named after, and the dean of the college.

The people we interviewed had a generic address in their cover letter, but their letters were strong and conveyed what we wanted to know about them and their resumes were also good. Nothing killed an app like a bad cover letter and resume. The incorrect address in the cover letter was just a cherry on top.
posted by kendrak at 4:20 PM on September 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Do not call them! Don't be that person who goes around the system and creates more work. That is a huge, huge negative, not a "showing initiative" positive. Nobody cares who the letter is addressed to. "To whom it may concern", "Dear Sir or Madam", "Dear search committee", and "Dear hiring manager" are all totally, completely fine. "Dear [the wrong person]" is an absolute killer.
posted by brainmouse at 4:47 PM on September 27, 2016 [37 favorites]

Saucysalt's method of narrowing down resumes is subject to subconscious bias. By choosing people close to you, you choose people similar to you. It's a safe way to conduct hiring, but also problematic unless done with great care.

If the advert didn't want you to know who the hiring manager would be, don't disrespect them by trying to snoop or guess. As brainmouse says, it brings attention to yourself in a negative light.

Highly suggest all of AskAManager. There's plenty of posts digging into the whys of hiring etiquette, so that you can have a better sense of making your own judgement call given your specifics.
posted by politikitty at 5:01 PM on September 27, 2016 [39 favorites]

Dear Sir or Madam and To Whom it May Concern are considered stodgy now. If this weren't academia, I'd say just start with "Hello" or "Dear Hiring Manager." Academia, as I understand it, is funny...others here will probably have better advice on that. But definitely don't call!
posted by radioamy at 5:11 PM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I got interviews and a job based on "dear hiring manager."
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:20 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am, frankly, pretty appalled at sauceysalt's method of "narrowing the field." I think there is absolutely no evidence that an applicant's ability properly guess who is in charge of the search will have any bearing on their ability to do the job for which the hiring is happening. So, sure; you have to read fewer applications, but there is absolutely no guarantee that those are going to be the good applications. And, as politikitty said, you are just opening yourself up to all types of unconscious bias by only hiring "people like you."

In my experience on searches, I really didn't care how a letter was addressed, but unless there is an explicit contact person listed, I thing something like "To Whom it May Concern:" or "Dear Members of the Search Committee," are totally fine.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:03 PM on September 27, 2016 [38 favorites]

Nthing don't play guessing games or wheel of fortune with the name. If someone cares about the salutation and doesn't tell you, that's kinda game-playing and setting candidates up for failure. My wife is a recruiter of many years experience, and lots of hiring managers don't even read cover letters - when they do, the content is far more important than the salutation.

If a contact number is listed in the ad, you could call it for clarification, but don't contact them unless contact is invited, as sometimes there can be hundreds of applicants and phone calls can be a real resource drain.

I personally prefer "To whom it may concern" unless the recruiter or hiring manager is specifically listed in the ad, cause I feel "Sir or Madam" is kinda retro, but I've never heard of anyone who cares much either way. Best of luck with your search.
posted by smoke at 7:04 PM on September 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I work in a private company. I am involved in hiring at least once a year, often more. In the past year I've been the hiring manager for 3 hires (it's been busy). For those last 3 hires, I got several hundred applications for each position. I do not have time to notice who the cover letter is addressed to -- if I even bother reading it. I cannot imagine caring one single bit about this.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:06 PM on September 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'm non-faculty, professional staff in higher education, have hired people, and I worked for a recruiting firm. "Dear Hiring Manager" has always done just fine for me, and on the hiring side, I do not think any of the generic options are actually wrong. Nor would using my name particularly impress me. Unlike one of the previous posters, I don't even really READ that part of your materials, much less use it as a point of consideration!
posted by sm1tten at 7:13 PM on September 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I work in a very large academic institution (in your region) and am a department head for a non-teaching unit. The job ads we write in my department usually say the title of the position the advertised job reports to, so you could easily Google who the hiring manger is, but I don't necessarily expect it. I think of it as a bonus, but I certainly would not weed applicants on that basis alone. I think Dear Hiring Manager or Dear Members of the Search Committee are both totally fine, and I like those better than To Whom it May Concern.

In my institution, usually HR does a first screen based on minimum qualifications. If there is a large number of applicants, they usually offer to do a second pass of screening before turning the rest over to the hiring manager. Everybody I know here reads cover letters very carefully, and our HR treats them as important as well. I do think that even for non-teaching jobs, in academia your cover letter should be a little more in-depth than the typical corporate letter, especially for management-level positions.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:19 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I work at a large academic institution and hire for non-teaching jobs. Most of our applicants start their letters with "Dear Sir or Madam" or "Dear Hiring Manager" or "To whom it may concern". I'm more concerned with the rest of your cover letter and your resume.
posted by mogget at 7:33 PM on September 27, 2016

I pretty much toss any cover letter that ISN'T addressed to me.

Obviously this must happen, but I've never heard of it, and doing so would not have been seen as at all legit at the places I have worked. I have always used "to whom it may concern" except when a name is given, and I'd be cautious about googling for a name because it is easy to get wrong and using the wrong name is going to be a lot worse than a generic "dear search committee."
posted by Dip Flash at 7:46 PM on September 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

I work in education and have only found one position in the hundreds (wish I was kidding) of applications I've sent tell me to whom I should address the letter. I did, and I got the job. However, I also got lots of job offers for "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern."

N'thing that it probably doesn't matter, but I'm watching with interest for the next time I get to send out cover letters!
posted by guster4lovers at 7:48 PM on September 27, 2016

FWIW I really don't want people to seek me out when I have an opening*. But I wouldn't throw a resume away for just being personalized or being sent to me directly, minor annoyance at most.

In fact I wince when I hear advice by a local radio guy who swears to job candidates they need to try and make the application "personal" and tell a story about how they can help in ways the hiring manager hasn't thought of. For many reasons, most objectively because going all in that route means their the kind of person who will lecture me about what I want, without having any knowledge of my desires at that stage.
posted by mark k at 9:53 PM on September 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

As a datapoint, I got three interviews recently with "Dear Hiring Manager."
posted by Nilehorse at 1:13 AM on September 28, 2016

I work in a university. I do not work for HR, but I am responsible for collating all the applicant data for my department when we are searching for a new professor.

My department has never turned down someone based solely on how their cover letter was addressed. Long as the university and/or department was right, we didn't really pay it much mind. It's also impossible to know who is in charge of the application process because for some portion of it is me and for others, it is the 10 faculty I work for together. It is far more awkward for me to receive a cover letter addressed, "Dear Professor Zizzle" or "Dear Doctor Zizzle" when I am neither. But in some ads, my name is listed as the point of contact and there's not always an option to include titles, so people just assume. But even that error has no bearing on someone getting a job or not.

Academia is really weird. My university doesn't have hiring managers. Departments reveiw applications, tell HR who they want to interview, and then the departments make the decision and HR writes up offer letters. There's no pre-screening process through HR. Other universities clearly may vary.
posted by zizzle at 3:49 AM on September 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you, everyone! I'm glad I asked. "Dear Members of the Search Committee" it is.
posted by smirkette at 5:02 AM on September 28, 2016

This seems pretty put to rest but, having worked at a large academic institution, I would nth that any info you can find by internet "sleuthing" may very well be out-of-date or irrelevant. I've also read applications for staff positions, and all the finalists had cover letters with the generic "Dear Hiring Committee".
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:35 AM on September 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Or you can use "Dear Committee Members", a must read for those involved in academia.
posted by advicepig at 9:57 AM on September 28, 2016

I say "Hey [company name]!" and I just got the best job on the planet.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:02 AM on September 29, 2016

I see this is done but I wanted to Nth some of the answers.

I've been on both sides of the job search and I think it's incredibly obnoxious and setting up candidates for failure when you expect them to guess or sleuth as a precondition. If I cared that much, I'd put my name down.
posted by aperturescientist at 11:32 AM on September 29, 2016

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