I just read your post about not addressing cover letters with "Dear Sir or Madam," but I'm wondering about letters of recommendation. I'd like to write
them so the person can use them for multiple audiences but I'm not sure how to address those.
Great question! You can write a letter of recommendation using "To whom it may concern," but why would you? These days, you're better off writing a LinkedIn recommendation. That's a million times more powerful than an old-fashioned letter of recommendation, for five reasons:
A letter of recommendation has a date on it. After a year or so it starts to look and feel dated. A LinkedIn recommendation goes on the site and stays there. A person reviewing your LinkedIn profile can see all your recommendations, not just one or two. (You probably wouldn't want to bring a whole stack of recommendation letters into an interview. LinkedIn makes it unnecessary for us to bring even one.)
- A letter of recommendation can be lost. You can hand it to someone and they can toss it in the trash by mistake. A LinkedIn recommendation lives on your LinkedIn profile, where (until the Internet goes down one day) anyone can see it.
- A letter of recommendation says "Some guy named Joe Schmoe says in this letter that Elena did a good job." Who is Joe? How credible is he? A LinkedIn recommendation lets you instantly jump over to Joe's profile and check him out, and gauge his credibility (to your tastes) on the spot. Who is Joe connected to? How do his endorsements read? What's in his resume?
A letter of recommendation is awkward to hand over. For me, it feels very Hermione-Granger-ish to bring a letter of recommendation into an interview and pass it on. As I think about it, I could have included hardcopy letters of recommendation in Friday's story where I catalogued some out-of-date job-search tactics. A physical letter of recommendation is very similar to using dedicated, nubbly beige resume paper or "Dear Sir or Madam" in a cover letter, in the sense that all of those things are artifacts of a bygone era.
Apart from being an awkward thing to hand over in a face-to-face conversation (where in the conversation would that moment fall? Wouldn't it always break up the flow of a substantive conversation about business issues, for you to suddenly say "I wanted you to see this letter?" And how should the hiring manager react, reading it? I hate everything about that interaction, as I think about it -- it makes my skin crawl) a physical letter of recommendation is in exactly the wrong frame, from the standpoint of our Grovel-Free Job Search approach.
A letter of recommendation says "Look! You have a job open, and my past manager says I'm awesome. Does this letter win me some points, I hope?" Your LinkedIn profile includes endorsements if you have them, but it isn't simply a list of endorsements. It's got tons of other terribly relevant and useful information about you, as well. So having your "letters of recommendation" on LinkedIn versus a piece of paper integrates the wonderful things other people have said about you with your own history and point of view and photo and so on. It's an integrated view. That's so much stronger than a piece of paper that someone hands you, out of context, somewhere in the middle of a job interview.