Over the last 2 weeks I posted 2 articles: ‘Are your subcontractors profitable? Should you care?’ and: ‘Managing your subcontractors. Ensure your project is successful.’ Thank you to the many people who read and commented on the article. Most comments mentioned poor communication and the poor selection of subcontractors as leading causes of problems with subcontractors.
In this article I ask the question: ‘Do your subcontractors really understand what is expected of them?’ Many readers will say; ‘of course yes, it’s spelled out in our document.’ My answer; ‘are you sure?’
Several months ago the neighbours across the street engaged a contractor to do renovations on their house. One Saturday at 6.45am the neighbourhood was awoken by loud bashing and noise at the house. Fortunately I was up and opening our upstairs windows and saw a plastering subcontractor off-loading their truck and setting up the work area. I shouted a comment to the affect that they shouldn’t be making a noise so early in the morning, especially not on the weekend, to which the contractor replied I was welcome to complain to the council. 10 minutes later I was working in my front garden and got a torrent of abuse, with liberal swearing, from the subcontractor. I said nothing and walked across to see the owners of the house. While I was ringing the door-bell I received further verbal abuse which only stopped when another neighbour walked past and enquired what the problem was. The subcontractor then said he couldn’t work under these conditions, threw everything back on his truck and drove off with screeching tyres leaving the work unfinished.
Needless to say when I complained to the owners of the house they weren't very impressed with their contractor because their neighbours had been disturbed by the noise and verbally abused.
Well I can’t remember the name of the subcontractor but I do remember the name of the main contractor – after all their sign board stood outside the property for 3 months. Would I use that main contractor or recommend them to anyone – definitely not. Did I tell others about my experience – of course I did.
So back to my question: ‘Do your subcontractors understand what is expected of them?’ What harm are your subcontractors doing to your company’s good name?
Communication starts when the subcontractor is issued information to price the works. This documentation needs to be clear so the subcontractor knows what’s expected of them. This documentation forms part of the contract document which is used to administer the contract. Once work starts there are further communications and meetings. At every stage there are opportunities for misunderstandings or for information to be left out.
Subcontract tender documentation will vary depending on the type and size of the subcontract. But each should be as clear and complete as possible so there is no cause for misunderstandings which could result in quality, schedule and safety problems, or lead to claims and variations. The tender documentation should provide sufficient information for the subcontractor to price the project and provide details of the contractor's expectations and the project conditions.
The subcontract document is a legally binding contract between the subcontractor and contractor with enforceable provisions on both parties. If this document is poorly worded, inconsistent or incomplete, it can lead to complications with the management of the subcontractor resulting in the contractor incurring additional expenses, delays, even quality and safety problems on the project, and in the worst case, protracted legal arguments.
Much of the contract documentation should have formed part of the tender documentation.
It should be noted that this document usually doesn’t have to be hundreds of pages long as someone has recently mentioned they had to sign. In fact longer documents can lead to more confusion, ambiguities and contradictions.
(Tender and contract documentation are discussed in more details in my books)
Communication with the subcontractor regarding variations, instructions, additional information, schedule changes and approvals, quality, safety and progress concerns, and all contractual matters should be addressed in writing to the subcontractor’s authorised representative, and should emanate only from the contractor’s designated representative. Any verbal discussions, regarding the above matters, should be followed up in writing to ensure there are no misunderstandings, there is a record of what was said, and that the appropriate people are aware of what was discussed.
Copies of all instructions and contractual information should be distributed to the Project Manager, as well as the contractor’s contract administration staff.
Of course it’s important communication is directed to delegated subcontractor’s representative, otherwise it may become lost or be ignored. Subcontractors have their own hierarchy and it pays for contractors to respect this and not direct instructions to the subcontractor’s workers. Equally important is that the subcontractor isn’t bombarded by communication coming from different members of the contractor’s team which could cause confusion.
It’s useful to have a preconstruction or kick-off meeting to ensure that all parties understand the ground rules.
Regular progress meetings should also be held with the subcontractor during the course of construction.
I will discuss meetings in another article.
Subcontractors’ personnel should attend the GC’s project induction. Unfortunately many of these inductions are poorly presented. However, a good induction is an opportunity to explain to all workers what’s expected of them on the project in terms of safety, quality and behaviour as well as explaining how the team fits together and particular concerns and risks on the project.
But there’s more!
But despite all of the documentation, meetings and communications does the subcontractor really understand what’s expected from them? This means are they aligned with your company’s values? Do they understand your company’s safety and quality expectations? Will they respect your work and other contractor’s work? Do they treat their employees fairly? Will their actions uphold your company’s good name with your clients, neighbours and members of the public?
How do you communicate this to the subcontractor? The starting point is by engaging subcontractors who share the same values as your company. It helps if the contract documentation is unambiguous and clear. After this subcontractors need to be managed, clearly directed and assisted when needed.
Subcontractors are integral to the success of most projects. A poor subcontractor can derail a project and tarnish a contractor’s good name. Good communication is essential in ensuring your subcontractors don’t let your project and company down.
Other articles by the author
Why construction companies should be concerned about their reputation
Understanding what impacts your construction company’s reputation
Avoiding disputes on your construction project
(Written by Paul Netscher the author of the acclaimed books ‘Successful Construction Project Management: The Practical Guide’ and ‘Building a Successful Construction Company: The Practical Guide’. Both books are available in paperback and e-book from Amazon and other retail outlets. This article is adapted from information included in these books.)
© 2015 This article is not to be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission from the author.
construction management construction project management
Copyright 2016 - The attached articles cannot be reproduced for commercial purposes without the consent of the author.
The opinions expressed in the attached articles are those of the writer. It should be noted that projects are varied and different laws and restrictions apply which depend on the location of the contractor and the project. It's important that the reader uses the supplied information taking cognisance of their particular circumstances. The writer assumes no responsibility or liability for any loss of any kind arising from the reader using the information or advice contained herein.
"I have what I consider some of the best books on construction management."
Books are available from:
Other retail stores
Available in paperback or on Kindle
"28 YEARS OF CONSTRUCTION PROJECT MANAGEMENT EXPERIENCE, DEVELOPING SUCCESSFUL CONSTRUCTION PROJECT MANAGERS AND BUILDING SUCCESSFUL CONSTRUCTION COMPANIES"