A right to view a reference?

A specialty doctor had a job offer at another hospital withdrawn, and spoke to the MDU's advice line to ask if she had a right to see the reference written about her by a colleague.

The scene

A specialty doctor phoned the MDU advice line. She explained that she did not get on well with the clinical director of the trust in which she worked and that she had decided to apply for a job in another hospital. She had spoken informally to the consultant in that hospital, who had been very encouraging to her. She had then asked her current clinical director for a reference, which he had agreed to provide.

The doctor thought the interviews went very well and she was offered the post, subject to references. A few days later she received a call from the human resources department in the new hospital to say that the offer had been withdrawn. When she asked why, they would not tell her and refused to give her a copy of the reference. She then asked the clinical director's secretary for a copy of the reference and was told she could not have it. The doctor was upset and angry at this; surely she has a right to see what the clinical director wrote about her?

MDU advice

The MDU adviser explained that unfortunately the Data Protection Act 2018 says that the right of access to personal information does not apply to confidential references. Therefore neither the person writing the reference or the organisation receiving it are legally obliged to disclose the reference as a result of a subject access request.

The MDU adviser also explained that GMC guidance does say that doctors should be honest and fair when providing references and must only provide comments that can be substantiated, and that those comments should be objective, fair and unambiguous. The guidance also says that the person providing the reference should not include their personal views about a candidate if they have no bearing on their suitability for the post.

The guidance goes on to say that the referee should normally give a copy of the reference to the candidate if they ask for it, although there is no obligation to do so.

The adviser suggested that the doctor try to speak to the clinical director directly to ask him for a copy of the reference, or to tell her what he might have written in it so she could address any issues that were felt to be a problem. If the clinical director refuses to tell her, it might be better to ask for a reference from someone else.

This page was correct at publication on 30/01/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.