I don’t want to share my cover letter with coworkers!

A reader writes:

I don’t want to sound like a conceited jerk here. But I put a lot of work into my cover letter and resume, and while I have shared it with a few close friends, I don’t believe it is something I want to make public (at least not to people in my industry, in my region). But I work for a large corporation and due to recent changes in our department, many people are looking for new opportunities. One of my previous managers made a comment about my cover letter, which prompted a handful of people to come ask me for a copy. Even one of the supervisors (not someone I directly report to) came to ask for a copy of my cover letter.

I am no longer competing for the same positions, after having recently accepted a job with another company (something that these folks didn’t even know when they asked). I trust my “friends” with these documents because I know that if I ask them to “please keep this confidential and not share with others without my permission,” they’ll oblige by that. But I do not feel that way about some of the co-workers who have come to ask more recently.

So what’s the right play here? Make my cover letter and resume free for access in hopes of leaving a good memory with potential future contacts, or deny access based on the fact that I take pride in the effort I put into these documents, and might potentially compete against these people in the future?

Well, if it’s a really good cover letter, it’s going to be so customized to you that people shouldn’t be able to just copy it. Not that that will stop people though — I once received a cover letter for a job I was hiring for that was almost word-for-word one of the sample cover letters that I have up on this site. (That was an interesting conversation.)

In any case, if you believed your coworkers simply wanted to see an example of a cover letter that had worked and were going to use that to inform their thinking about their own– to inspire them to write something from scratch — I’d say you should pony up. Why not help people, after all? But if you think they’re going to copy it, I can understand feeling protective of your work. It’s yours, you probably worked hard on it, and it’s gross to think of someone just copying your words as their own.

But it’s pretty hard to say, “No, I don’t to share it with you” without looking like a giant ass. So instead, if you want to deny them, you probably have to fall back on claiming you no longer have a copy of it. If you want to be nice, though, you can tell them what you think made it effective, giving them principles (not precise words) to use in their own job searching efforts.

{ 84 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    Maybe I’m a jerk, but my cover letter is mine. All mine! *evil laugh*

    But seriously…I wouldn’t share mine.

  2. AD

    How about “dangit, it’s on my old laptop, and I’m not sure if I can dig it out…but here’s a great example over at AAM”?

    1. Ellen M.

      That’s good as an excuse for not giving it, but it doesn’t address the fact that the person is out of line for asking.

  3. Henning Makholm

    Um, is the OP afraid that his friends are going to use his cover letter to impersonate him, applying on his behalf for at job he once applied to at a company that probably aren’t even accepting applications for that position anymore because they already hired him years ago? Yes, I can see he’d want to avoid that — it would make him look pretty stupid.

    On the other hand, if he thinks the cover letter could be useful for a another person applying for a different position somewhere else — well, that makes him look pretty stupid too. Either that, or it must have been an exceptionally bland and uninspired cover letter.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I assume that he doesn’t want people using his letter to apply for jobs that he too might apply for at some point in the future. If it’s a distinctive cover letter, the hiring manager could remember it and won’t know who wrote it first — it’ll just look plagiarized.

      And even if he’s not concerned about applying for the same jobs with it, I think it’s normal to have pride of ownership in something that you created and not want other people using it as their own.

      And while it’s logical to think that a good, customized cover letter couldn’t be used by someone else (because it’s so customized), the reality is that people can and do steal cover letters that are all about someone else, not them. (See my story in the original post of that happening.)

    2. EM

      I completely understand his sentiment. He produced something amazing that required a lot of time and effort on his part and he doesn’t want to just give it to someone for nothing. I’m not suggesting he sell his cover letter, but I can understand not wanting others to capitalize on my hard work and dedication for nothing.

      1. Kimberlee

        It’s not for nothing, though. If he were planning to re-use the cover letter himself, which he probably can’t do because it’s so tailored, then that would be one thing. But he’s being given an excellent opportunity to share his talents with co-workers who – and he is correct in this – he has a large chance of interacting with later in his career. I’d say spread it far and wide! Just don’t use the same wording in future applications (not that this excellent cover letter writer would), and you won’t have a plaigerism problem.

        I totes understand wanting to be protective of your intellectual property, but you have a rare opportunity to toot the heck out of your own horn and gain a reputation for being excellent at cover letter writing (which many will extrapolate to “writing”). That can only help you in the future!

    3. MovingRightAlong

      I think you missed a key part of this post. The OP specifically mentions sharing the letter with “a few close friends” and is now faced with a situation where co-workers (not friends) are asking to see it. Even if these co-workers are completely scrupulous people, they might share it with others who are also looking for help writing a cover letter and so on and so for. The chances of it getting into the hands of a not-so-scrupulous person dramatically increase when you give up sole guardianship of you own work.

      And I highly doubt that your first scenario has entered into anyone’s mind. Plagiarizing, however, is a real thing that happens.

  4. Lexy

    I happily share mine with pretty much anyone because it’s so customized that it would be painfully obvious that the person isn’t me (I’m really interested in how you did [x accomplishment] can you tell me more about that? *crickets*). My cover letter brings in activities beside my main field (volunteer & community work specifically) so there’s no way it would be applicable for somebody who just did my position… they would have to be me. Or a brilliant sociopath.

    On the other hand, Alison, I would LOVE to hear how the conversation went with the person who applied to you with one of your sample cover letters…

  5. Student

    “Oh, I couldn’t find the file for my old cover letter, sorry about that! Well, if you’d like some suggestions, feel free to send a copy of your cover letter by email and I’ll give you some constructive criticism.”

    This is exactly the social occasion that white lies were invented for: people asking for something personal but not completely unreasonable that you do not want to provide.

    1. jmkenrick

      Agreed.

      You could also find one or two sample cover letters that you think are good and pass those along.

    1. Jamie

      I vote for this as best answer. It’s the whole give a man a fish, teach a man to fish. Besides if they are on the market pointing them here opens them up to a plethora of advice outside of the cover letter.

      Just send them there – although when they read this post they’ll know why you didn’t want to share your cover letter :).

  6. fposte

    “I once received a cover letter for a job I was hiring for that was almost word-for-word one of the sample cover letters that I have up on this site.”

    So what did s/he say? I’m vaguely picturing the gushing save of “You’ve been such a great influence on my candidacy!” to which you say dryly, “So I see.”

  7. Ariancita

    Anybody else dying to know more about AMM’s cover letter copier conversation????

    Wow, I would never do that in the first place, but even if I was tempted (which I’m not), I just assume any awesome employer I’d want to work with would be reading this blog. And to send it to the actual creator of the blog? Gobsmacked!

  8. nuqotw

    Is there some middle ground? How about showing them a copy, letting them see it on the screen, talking about it, but not sharing an electronic or hard copy?

      1. nuqotw

        I guess that’s true….I kind of take it as a hint that I can see it but can’t have it but I suppose that’s not universal.

        1. Laurie

          I guess I’d be weirded out too if someone wanted to see a copy of a cover letter I used to get a job. But since so many people have talked about it and asked to see it, maybe the OP should come up with a redacted version of it, leaving the generic parts in? It just seems like keeping good terms with that many coworkers (since it’s not just one or two people, but several and likely to increase as word gets around) would be a good idea. For a lot of them, it’s probably just curiosity – and if they can read an outline of this mythical cover letter, their curiosity would be sated.

      2. Long Time Admin

        Yup. People can be incredibly pushy. They seem to count on others being too polite to refuse them.

  9. Josh S

    The easy solution is to quickly draft a milder approximation of your old cover letter and share that freely. You can still be sharing *your* cover letter, just not your *best* cover letter.

    It’s like when pitchers throw to first with their 2nd best move. (If you don’t watch baseball, ignore that.)

    1. Anonymous

      That was my first thought too. Those who are asking for legitimate reasons (vs. those hoping to plagiarize) just want to see an example of good format and things to include.

  10. Ask a Manager Post author

    Okay, here’s the story: I received an application from someone where the cover letter was one of the samples I’ve posted here. She’d made a few small changes to it, but it was clearly taken from here. I wasn’t sure if it was total coincidence and she had no idea that she was applying for a job with someone associated with the site, or if it was some odd intentional gimmick, like I’d recognize it and be so overcome with flattery that I’d ignore the plagiarism. So I just emailed her back and said something like, “I’m confused — this letter appears to be one I have posted on my own site. Can you clarify?” (I love “can you clarify?” It’s so useful in weird conversations.) At that point, she claimed that it had been intentional, but in a very unconvincing way.

    Our next correspondence was a rejection letter.

      1. The Other Dawn

        I love it also. It puts the burden on the other person and really what you’re say is, “You’ve been caught and I’m pretty sure whatever explanation you come up with will be BS, but that’s not my problem,” without actually saying it. That’s how I use it, anyway.

      2. Anonymous

        I use that sentence a lot of times ranging from “Oh dear, I think my company mucked up but I don’t want to admit it just yet until I’m totally sure” all the way to “you really want me to believe that you want your official response to be X? I’m not sure that you want me taking this response to your management”.

        Obviously the rest of the email sets the tone but “can you clarify” gets the response needed!

    1. Ariancita

      Please. Intentional? No way. I wouldn’t do that no matter what, but if she was going for a cheap gimmick (and who uses plagiarism as a gimmick??), I would think she would have made it obvious–a few lines of some sort setting up the gimmick because one wouldn’t want the reader to think they have plagiarized. She would have been very obviously intentional if she was trying for intentional. Wow.

      1. Alex

        There are some people who take “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” to a whole new level, and believe they are doing the right thing by copying someone’s work. If someone else said it best to start with, why change anything?

        And then there’s laziness, which is usually why plagiarism happens.

  11. EngineerGirl

    I actually once had one of my highly personalised resumes come back to me. I was shook up by it, as I had spend hours (and hours, and hours) working it. I think the person assumed that my resume got me my job, so they thought that they should copy it. In truth, I got the job through a strong network and recommendation, and the resume was merely icing.

    I think the best solution in this case is the in between one. Tell the people asking that cover letters are so highly personalized that you don’t think yours would be relevant. Emphasize that cover letters really need to reflect the writer. Then e-mail them links to sites that you feel do a great job discussing cover letters. Offer to review a few if you feel so inclined.

    That way you are helping without risking your personal stuff.

  12. Andy Lester

    I disagree with the lying about it. I’d say “I’m sorry, but I keep those things private.” Then repeat it like a mantra if you have to.

    1. EngineerGirl

      Absolutely agree. If I find someone is lying – even about little things – I still know that they are dishonest.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Eh, it’s a white lie. It’s a different category, like how telling someone you love their gift might not be true but it’s preferable to being rude.

        1. EngineerGirl

          I’d rather find a way to say the truth gently. Even if a gift is ugly, you can honestly say “thank you for thinking if me”

          1. Unmana

            But what would you say if they insisted on knowing if you like it and you’re using it and isn’t it perfect for you? :)

    2. Another Emily

      I like this because then whoever complimented your cover letter at the company will know that it’s not okay to share a copy. (I assume whoever hired you still has a copy on file.)

  13. TheSnarkyB

    Where’s the direct, no nonsense AAM we all know and love?
    I think it is completely reasonable to say, “I’d be willing to give you some tips, but I generally don’t share it.” or, if that sounds presumptuous and cocky, then just “I generally don’t share it, but I’m flattered. Sorry if that seems odd, it’s just that (gently list concerns or ‘I’ve been burned by…’ sentiments)… “

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      The direct, no-nonsense AAM lives in the real world and knows that sometimes you just don’t feel like getting into it with coworkers who won’t take no for an answer or who will give you crap for not giving them what they want.

      1. TheSnarkyB

        Hey, it wasn’t a slight. I love the direct, no-nonsense AAM as well as the AAM that understands the other side of things. (Not sure where you’re based, but I saw you mention Beloit as your alma matter. I’m a Macalester grad myself, and I discovered your column/blog in the “Minnesota Nice” Tundra– it was refreshingly up front but I respect both perspectives.)
        I get that sometimes people don’t want to get into it. I just meant to offer the Snarky B perspective :)

  14. Suzanne Lucas--Evil HR Lady

    Just as an FYI, HR keeps these things on file. So, if you tell your coworker, “OH, I lost it! I’m sorry.” They can say, “No, problem, just call employee records and get a copy.”

    I may have had to do that in the past after my computer exploded (seriously, there was smoke!) and I lost my resume.

    In this situation, since everyone is looking for new jobs, HR may only be too happy to help. Granted they won’t give it to anyone who calls, but if you say, “I don’t have it,” you may get a response of, “Oh, employee records has it! I’ll call Kara down there for you!” and suddenly your phone gets picked up and Kara’s number dialed and then what do you do?

    I say share! And share with me. I’m good with resume and stink at cover letters.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      This is true. I guess I’d hope it didn’t come to that, although at that point, if your back is up against the wall, you could say, “You know, I’m actually weird about sharing that stuff but I’d be glad to look yours over if you want some feedback on it.”

      1. AD

        Also, calling HR to ask for your cover letter seems dangerously close to telling HR you are interviewing elsewhere.

      2. A M G

        I agree with offering to review theirs. Especially if you explain that cover letters are very personalized if they are to be successful. That way the relationship doesn’t suffer and the cover letter isn’t compromised.

    2. Student

      “Oh, I think HR is too busy for that, let’s not bother them. You probably don’t want to tip them off that you’re looking for a different job, right? Now tell me about this job you’re looking at.”

      Drop some FUD, redirect the conversation.

      I’m guessing that the FUD factor on this would put an end to asking HR for cover letters. Asking a question immediately also makes it much harder for the other person to be pushy about the issue and gets them talking about something else.

      If the OP weren’t already headed out the door, she could claim that she didn’t want HR to think she was looking for a job by asking for her cover letter.

    3. Anonymous

      Note for not loosing a resume/documents in the future : Email it to yourself. I often email to myself any documents I might want to find easily in a few years time when I have changed computers but still have the same email address.

      I can put my hands on my CV from about 8 years ago this way.

      1. Kimberlee

        Google Docs is how I do it. Now that I have it, I have everything on there… anything I might ever need to look at again. I move a lot too, so it helps to keep things like tax returns and whatnot on there in case they get lost in moves.

  15. Anonymous

    I’m just having a hard time imagining this magical cover letter that is so brilliant it gets the user a ton of jobs, yet is so adaptable it can be used with great success by tons of people. In my last job hunt, I wrote one letter that I really loved, but it was so specific that I couldn’t even use it for other jobs *I* was applying for. There’s no way anyone else could have adapted it for their job hunt without cutting everything out that made it awesome. (I did get an interview for that position bc they loved the letter so much, but did not take the job) In my more standard letter, I do have some fallback phrasing that I liked to rely on, which I suppose someone might gank, but once again, unless they’ve had my exact career path of working in the savory towelbar field before switching to chocolate teapots, they are going to have to cut way more than they keep just to be relevant. And honestly, the only places that read my cover letter were smaller offices (1-25 employee range). In most of the larger concerns, people either didn’t have time or they may not have even seen the cover letter bc of the web system. In fact, I never even wrote a letter for the job I got!

    1. Kelly O

      I think maybe you’re underestimating the sheer stupidity of some people. Someone complimented the OP on her cover letter, so it must be completely fabulous right? Which means I change the name and hope I get all the details changed to what I’m applying for, and bingo – job offers start pouring down the chimney like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts letters.

      I’d be wary of sharing mine, and I don’t think I’d realistically even be applying for similar jobs as my coworkers, mainly because I can see someone using it and not changing a piece of contact information. Or maybe two of them use it and one forgets to change the phone number and I get a call from some AP supervisor in a town two hours from here wondering why they got two identical cover letters.

      I gladly offer to direct people to other resources, or offer advice, but I don’t share my own work. Granted, I didn’t let people copy my work in school either, so I have a history of being stingy that way.

      1. Jamie

        I’m with Kelly – I think Anonymous is underestimating sheer stupidity.

        I can easily see someone taking an excellent cover letter and just swapping out specifics and sending it verbatim. If enough someone’s do this then depending on the industry an employer could end up with several cover letters with identical verbiage/different specifics.

        I work in a particularly specific niche – if my company were to close there would be a handful of local companies which would be swamped with resumes from my displaced co-workers…the same cover letter would definitely be noticed.

    2. Ellen M.

      Some people would take your cover letter and try to use it as a template, substituting their info for your and making minor changes here and there. It would read like crap of course, but they are looking for the fastest way out here and the least amount of effort.

      If they wanted to take the time to learn how to do it right and write it well, they wouldn’t be asking for someone else’s cover letter!

  16. David Gaspin

    Sounds like the beginning of a little side business to me. “No, you can’t see my letter. But I’ll write one for you that’s almost as good. For $500.”

    1. Student

      That cover letter better be written on solid gold leaf at that price, with illumination by some ancient sect of monks on a mountain.

  17. Anonymous

    I would totally not be okay with giving people copies of my cover letter. I would gladly refer them to websites, etc. that I have gotten advice from in the past, and would also offer to read over theirs and make suggestions… but giving them a copy of mine? Nah. If they were pushy I”d probably just make a fake one to get them off of my back!

    Perhaps this is because in college I often had friends ask to read an assignment I had completed, only for them to ask me to proofread theirs later at which time I would find too many seemingly unintentional similarities to my original work than I was comfortable with.

  18. class factotum

    I’m in the “share it because how on earth could someone else use it” camp.

    Unless there is another person out there who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile working with a textile co-op who then went on to a marketing job that turned into a data conversion to SAP job where she was called the Data Queen and who used chocolate as a motivator who kicked ass selling ads for her neighborhood association’s home tour and who is now looking for a job after six years of unemployment because her husband wants to change to a career that will cut his pay by 60%.

    I mean, it could happen.

  19. Alex

    I think the person who would steal OP’s cover letter is the same type of person who wouldn’t understand the requirements or scope of the jobs they were applying for, anyway. They would just see a great cover letter and throw it at all the jobs they were applying for, without much customization, and then the hiring managers would read it and get the picture. I have seen puh-lenty of cover letters that were so obviously copied and/or generic, and it really clued me into the applicant (most didn’t make it to an interview, the ones that did – it was obvious they didn’t understand what the job was about and just pasted words from the description into their resumes). So I say share, or just show them a copy, and if they ask for a copy of it, keep directing the conversation towards, “Here are some principles I used…”

    1. khilde

      This is a good point that the person who pushes and pushes for the cover letter might reveal him or herself to be an undesirable candidate in other ways.

  20. The Other Dawn

    I’m not sure what I’d do in this situation. It takes me back to school when people always wanted to copy my notes. To this day I’m highly protective of anything I’ve created. I’m willing to share in certain situations, but in general I’m not going to hand over something I worked my ass off on just so the other person doesn’t have to do the same. I can generally tell when it’s a sincere request versus one where the person just doesn’t want to do the work.

    1. Kelly O

      I lost on a lot of opportunities to “be more popular” in school because I refused to let people copy my work, or to rewrite their edits.

      I know it’s silly but I have a coworker now who keeps saying “I want me a binder like yours” and I’ve told her half a dozen times what I put in there, but I am loathe to hand it over to her so she can make an exact copy. Guess there is still part of me that thinks somehow, somewhere I am finally going to get that A I’ve been working for ever since I graduated.

  21. Michael

    How about: My cover letter was specifically written to address my experience, skills, and background. So, it would be hard for it to be a good example for someone else; but, I would love to share with you the resources I used in helping me write it to assist you in writing the best cover letter for your experience, skills, and background. (Then give them the list of resources you used: AAM, WSJ, et cetera)

  22. Amina

    I make mine personal to each job (read somewhere about someone doing 70 online job applications a day, and find it unsurprising they had no callbacks), so all you have to say, is, “it’s tailored very specifically to me and my resume, so I’m not comfortable sharing, but this is the general approach I took [list a, b, and c points] and if you want to show me your attempt, I’d be happy to give feedback.”

    1. Sheila

      That is a really great way to phrase it. And it keeps you from looking selfish.

      When I was an intern word spread around the department that I had a really great looking resume – format and wording for some of my accomplishments (I was in grad school, and had worked between undergrad & grad). These were not fellow interns – I was the only one; these were full time employees who had been working there from 3 – 15 years. The office manager who had access to it told me that she loved it so much that she was changing her to match mine, and then she shared it with the rest of the department without asking me.

      I guess I was supposed to be flattered that they thought mine was so nice, but all I was thinking was in the future when I’m applying for jobs, are there going to be lots of other versions like mine floating around so that I look unoriginal? The field we were in is awfully small, especially in the same town.

      I’m still irritated by it.

  23. angthelaw

    This reminds me of a similar situation I was in a few years ago, only this was with my resume. The company I worked for was closing the office I worked in. Very shortly after the announcement, I found a new job. One of my former coworkers asked to see my resume (he assumed it must have been awesome since I got a job so quickly). Wanting to be helpful, I sent it to him.

    Fast forward a couple of weeks…there’s a job opening at my new company. He asked me to pass his resume on to management. I took a look at it and found that he had copied my resume! Some of the wording was different, of course, but he did copy some of my text word-for-word and adopted my resume style.

    After seeing this, I had to not only rewrite the text on my resume, but reformat it as well. I was not the least bit happy about either of these things.

    Lesson learned.

  24. Ellen M.

    I wouldn’t share my cover letter either. What entitlement to demand this from someone!! I might share some cover letter writing resource/articles/blogs that had solid advice, though.

    Let them do their own work, in the workplace or when job hunting. What next, I should write the resume and go to the interview for them too, negotiate salary and everything else?

    Another option is to say that you’ll give it to them for a fee. (I am only half kidding here.) Say that you spent a lot of time and effort on it ti get it just right and expect to be compensated for it. Watch how fast they vanish and never again ask you to do their work for them.

  25. Anonymous

    Hmm, I keep going back and forth on this one. I can understand not wanting to share your cover letter, especially if you’ve put a lot of work into it. However, if you really do have an amazing cover letter, then it will only be relevant to your background/experience/skills and the company that cover letter is customized for. If someone were to simply copy it and swap out a few things here and there, it might just make them look incredibly foolish to a potential employer. I see no harm is sharing your cover letter with them, but hey, they should do their own homework! It’s not hard to find examples of good cover letters online.

    1. Kelly O

      The downside I guess of that argument is that its also really easy to find horrible examples of resumes and cover letters online. Figuring out which is which is what takes the thinking.

      And some people seem too lazy to even think for themselves, which is sad.

  26. EngineerGirl

    I think I need to point out that this dilemma exists because people are trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem is NOT “I need a cover letter”. The problem IS “I need a job”.

    OP, if you raise this with the others you can turn the conversation away from your cover letter. Then discuss job finding techniques with your coworkers.

  27. JessB

    Why not just say, ‘Actually, my cover letter is pretty customised to my experience, and probably wouldn’t be helpful to you at all. But there are some great ones at this website I read, Ask A Manager. I’ll send you the link!’

    You keep your cover letter private, they get some help from you.

    Win-win.

  28. Poison Ivy

    I wouldn’t share my exact cover letter – just about every one I’ve written is different – but I would (and often have) put together an outline of how I constructed it. It’s far more helpful to teach someone how to do it themselves, rather than give them something to copy.

  29. glache

    This is difficult because I actually agree with all the viewpoints stated–because I am both parties.

    a) It’s my work, go do your own work and think one up yourself–yeah I take great pride in my work and lesson well learnt after group assignments with freeloaders
    b) It’s good to see a good example–I learn best by example. My current resume is based on someone else’s, but the manner of asking (or not) was different. I was asking how to apply for a very competitive type of job that she’d gotten and she volunteered to email me her resume, obviously with the condition that I never circulate it to anyone else. By volunteered I mean I didn’t even push her, she said so straight up of her own volition. The only similarity mine bears to hers is the formatting of the headers. Everything else (including content) is so different you’d know it wasn’t one trying to plagiarise the other.

  30. Mephyle

    A white lie has to be plausible to be polite. If the lie is transparent, it’s insulting. In this case, it’s highly implausible that someone so savvy that he writes a brilliant cover letter is so disorganized that he doesn’t keep a copy. It’s clear that “I don’t have it any more,” is an excuse and it says to the asker “I don’t respect you enough to tell you the truth.”

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