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Business Correspondence Etiquette

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Your professional reputation could very well depend upon how effective your communication skills are, and in particular, your written communication skills. Earning a reputation for using proper etiquette in all your business dealings can only enhance your career and enable you to command respect for being someone who thinks and writes clearly.

Cover Letters

Unless a job posting specifically states "No cover letters," proper etiquette for job applications is to always to send one to the recruiter or hiring manager. Demonstrate the professional courtesy of introducing yourself instead of simply emailing your resume or sending an envelope that contains your resume without so much as a paragraph that states who you are and the job for which you're applying. Use the addressee's name and title; don't send a letter to "Whom It May Concern." The extra step to call human resources for the recruiter's or hiring manager's name is worth it.

Professional References

Whether you're writing a professional reference to recommend a friend or colleague for a job or asking your own reference to write a letter on your behalf, certain rules of etiquette determine what to say in the letter or how to request a letter. If you're writing a letter to recommend someone for a job, focus on their professional skills and qualifications and stay away from comments on the person's personal characteristics. When you ask for letters of recommendation, tell your reference about the job you want and explain how his comments could help you position yourself as a strong candidate. Also, always ask permission to use someone's name as a professional reference, regardless of whether you ask for a recommendation letter.

Interoffice Memorandum

Generally, a "memo to file" is a recap of circumstances that affect a department, the company or even an individual employee. Proper etiquette requires you to keep those with a need to know well informed, so you should provide them with a copy of the memo instead of expecting them to go searching the file to read it. When you're writing a memo that contains sensitive or confidential information, mark it as such and make sure you don't distribute copies to staff without a need to know.

Email Etiquette

Technology enables instant and convenient communication, file transfer and interaction via written or visual means. Because email is such an easy way to communicate, you may dispatch quick notes that readers might misinterpret. So consider what you're writing and whether email is the best way to send your thoughts. Refrain from sending an email message for formal documents, such as contracts. Etiquette and career expert Lindsay Silberman reminds readers that email is forever in a June 2010 article for "Inc." magazine. Remember that using email as a substitute for formal documentation, such as employment or business contracts, is a departure from standard business practice. Also check your tone to ensure that you aren't being too informal for an office setting -- don't use emoticons and exaggerated punctuation, such as smiley faces and numerous exclamation points or question marks.

Formal Business Letter

Using standard business format is the first step in preparing a letter that follows the rules of etiquette for professional correspondence. Writing a hard-copy letter is a best practice that many organizations follow, simply because you can apply a "wet" signature to the formal document. Use an inside address, the addressee's full name, title and address, and use a proper greeting and closing salutation. Think twice about writing an email in place of a formal business letter -- it may not have the same effect and tone that you require to convey your message.


Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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