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A letter from Sussex Place, January 2012

Ian Currie, Honorary Secretary, writes:

I am sure many of us, at some point in our professional careers, have had to write a reference for someone. Most of us embrace this task, and a few find it difficult to put pen to paper, often relishing the 'tick-box' template references that some prospective employers now send through electronically, thereby avoiding long free-text replies that we actually have to cerebrate over.

Whatever we feel as an individual when writing a reference, the responsibility bestowed upon us demands us to write an honest account of a professional which includes justifiable and accurate comments. Issues surrounding probity in our medical careers are taken very seriously by the General Medical Council and a poorly written and inaccurate reference may come back to haunt us at a later date. Indeed, serious or persistent failure to follow best practice may put one's own medical registration at risk.

Why am I writing about this subject and why am I trying to advise fellow professionals how to do something that is perceived to be done well already?

Well, the upshot is that in my short time as Honorary Secretary of the College, this issue has been raised in quite a serious context and it is clear that a minority of doctors do not put time and effort into their responses for prospective candidates. Employers need to be confident that they can rely on the information given and candidates themselves also need to be confident that what is written about them is accurate and reliable.

So what are some of the key issues? The GMC does give guidance on the principles of writing a reference and having read it myself I felt encouraged to give even more careful thought and consideration to this activity.

If you agree to write a reference you must:

  • Only provide comments on which you are able to substantiate
  • Provide comments which are objective, fair and unambiguous
  • Not base comments on your personal views about a candidate which have no bearing on that person's suitability

It goes without saying that we must make sure that the documents we sign are not false or misleading and that we must take reasonable steps to verify the information, however we must not leave out any relevant information. This refers to the so-called 'short brief response' we have all been exposed to at interview panels that appears to be supportive but lacks any depth of information or clarity.

Disclosure of personal information is an area that is often enquired about by doctors. Health issues should not usually be included however situations may arise where you are aware of confidential information that may have a direct bearing on the candidate's suitability. In such circumstances you should seek consent to disclose the information and if that consent is then withheld, you will need to consider whether the benefits to patients of disclosure would outweigh the possible harm to the individual candidate.

Finally, if a candidate asks you for a copy of their reference it is considered best practice to provide them with one, although you are not legally or professionally required to do so.

I hope this gives you an introduction into this subject which is not often taught to undergraduates or postgraduates.

Above all, beware of the copy/paste button on your computers.

Ian Currie
RCOG Honorary Secretary

If you have any comments, please write to letterfromsussexplace@rcog.org.uk