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Writing an effective cover letter is challenging if you're not sure how to address the hiring manager. Sometimes the manager's name or gender isn't apparent, despite your best efforts to find out. Even so, you'll be judged on how well you finesse the salutation. With a little common sense, it's possible to develop strategies to deal with these dilemmas. The main thing is to show you wrote your letter for a specific audience.
Avoid Generic Greetings
Address cover letters to a specific person at a company whenever possible. Stay away from vague greetings like "Dear Personnel Director," "Dear Sir or Madame," or "To Whom It May Concern." Starting a letter with these impersonal and obsolete salutations tells the hiring manager that you haven't researched who might read it, asserts Quintessential Careers associate publisher Katherine S. Hansen. Call the company and request the manager's name. If that method fails, see if someone in your career network can help, or review company publications and websites. Then revise your letter to reflect the new information.
Use the Full Formal Name
If you have all the appropriate contact information, address the hiring manager by her full name -- whether it's "Mrs. Jane Doe" or "Ms. Jane Doe," for example. However, if you don't know a female manager's martial status, don't address her as "Mrs." The default salutation is "Ms.," which can refer to a married or unmarried woman. Depending on your preference, start with the "Dear" greeting, or the person's name. If the manager's name could be masculine or feminine, use a full formal salutation, like "Dear Terry Marshall."
Address the Top Decision-Maker
Refer to the decision-maker by title if you don't have the name. Exhaust all your possible search options before falling back this technique, though. For example, search by company name, followed with the phrase, "Human Resources+ Recruiting," which might yield the name of the recruiter who actually posted the opening. If those techniques don't work, address the highest-ranking position, such as the head of the department where you're applying. Although it's less personal, this approach shows that you've at least taken the time to research your potential employer.
Follow a business memo format if you don't know the hiring manager's name, or your best research doesn't reveal it. Start with an identifier like "RE: Job #12345: Product Marketing Manager," advises the New York State Society of Security Analysts' September 2012 article, "How to Properly Address a Cover Letter if You Don’t Know the Hiring Manager’s Name." You can also jointly address your letter to the human resources manager and specific department where you're applying. Start off with, "Dear Hiring Manager and Human Resource Partner For Department X." Then get right to the point of your letter.
Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.