In elementary school, many of us learned how to “properly” write letters….and some of the “proper” techniques taught to us included super-formal terms of address (remember “Dear Sir or Madam”?) and quaint but stuffy sign-offs like “Sincerely."
However, the modern business world doesn’t always operate in the starched-and-pressed manner written about in grammar school textbooks. If you’re writing an email to your boss, sending a group text to colleagues, or even penning a cover letter for a job application, how “fancy” do your professional missives need to be? And if you work in a very casual office culture, how far does that extend regarding emails, letters, and instant messaging?
Don’t worry- we’ve got you covered. Read on for tips on workplace correspondence: how to start your emails, how to end them, and how to navigate the (sometimes alarmingly) freeform world of messaging.
Let’s start out by dispelling a common belief: even if you’re writing to a new client you’ve never met before (or are sending a job application to a hiring manager whose name you don’t know), “Dear Sir or Madam” is never, EVER the correct way to start your emails in 2019. It’s overly fussy and will immediately reveal you as someone who doesn’t understand contemporary workplace norms. That said, there’s no need to relentlessly track down the name of every hiring manager you might attempt to contact. There’s a useful middle ground, and we’re breaking it down right here.
Because “professional emails” can span a wide range of purposes, different levels of formality can be employed, depending on the email’s intended audience. If you’re writing a cover letter or are sending a message to a new client, “Dear ______” still works as a polished salutation. However, if you’re writing to a colleague or supervisor within your own office, no one will think less of you for opening your email with “Hi ______”, unless you work in an industry with extremely elevated standards of decorum. That said, “Hey ______” may read as a bit too casual for work correspondence (depending on the culture of your workplace, of course). If you’re questioning whether it’s appropriate in the first place, you likely have your answer already.
When writing a cover letter for a job application, it’s certainly ideal to find out the hiring manager’s name and address the letter to her directly. However, if the name isn’t simple to discern from a basic LinkedIn or company-website search, don’t stress about it. Alison Green of Ask a Manager explains why in her blog:
“If the hiring manager’s name is easily available, sure, go ahead and address it to her. But calling to find out is overkill. It just doesn’t matter that much. I’ve never once thought, 'Oh wow, this person took the trouble to call and find out my name. What amazing initiative!' And I’ve also never once thought, 'I can’t believe this person didn’t bother to address this letter to me by name. What a slacker'. It is an issue if they inject a mistake in there though, like misspelling my name (lack of attention to detail) or addressing it to someone who deals with a whole different area (comprehension problems). So do it if it’s easily available, but don’t spend time on it if it’s not. I’d much rather you put that time into crafting an awesome cover letter and not worrying so much about what name to open with.”
While salutations usually entail only a few options (“Dear,”“Hello.” “Hi”), closings can include any number of phrases and terms. However, if you’re aiming for a professional tone that’s of-this-time, some options should be immediately eliminated. As we mentioned previously, “Sincerely” has officially gone the way of the dinosaurs, and ending a work email or letter with that closing will likely raise an eyebrow.
Other closing no-gos? Anything with a blatantly-emotional underpinning. You might sign an email to a friend or relative with “Love,” “Fondly,” or “xoxo,” but these phrases aren’t remotely appropriate in a work context, even if your field celebrates casual forms of address.
So what closing terms do work for professional correspondence? “Best” is a useful catch-all closer: friendly but not excessively familiar. “Thanks” and “Thank you” also work, depending on the situation; if you’re asking a colleague to complete a task or schedule a meeting, closing with “Thank you” reads as gracious, courteous and respectful of her time and energy. In more casual work environments, you may be able to get away with conversational closing terms like “Cheers,” but that’s highly contingent on your specific office dynamics. If all else fails, a simple hyphen followed by your name will do the job, concluding the letter without adding any extra (potentially unintentional) messages.
Now that messaging apps like Slack and Google Chat- along with good old-fashioned text messaging- have become integral forms of workplace communication, it’s important to address the rules around salutations for these inherently casual networks.
While there’s certainly no need to format Slack messages as you would an email or a handwritten letter, it’s still polite to open a new dialogue with some form of salutation. Entering a chat scenario by blurting out your request with no preamble will likely read as overly abrupt and may rub some colleagues the wrong way. To avoid that possibility, start your chats with a simple “Hi!” or, if you prefer, a quick bit of small talk like “Hope you had a great weekend!” The same rules apply for texting or GChatting; a basic salutation will start the conversation off on a positive note and will express your interest in maintaining a pleasant relationship with your coworkers (rather than a purely utilitarian one).