Do your Subcontractors understand what’s expected from them?


Do your Subcontractors understand what’s expected from them?

Do your subcontractors really understand what is expected of them? Many readers will say, ‘of course yes, it’s spelled out in our contract document.’ But, 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 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 their work unfinished.

I phoned the main contractor to complain – but they weren’t working on the weekend and only returned my call on Monday. When I said it was unacceptable for their subcontractors to behave like this they stated that they couldn’t be held responsible for their subcontractors.

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 with the subcontractor when they are 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.

Pricing documentation

Subcontract request to price or tender documentation will vary depending on the type and size of the construction work. 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 variation claims later. 

The pricing documentation should: 

  • Have a clear scope of works.
  • Detail all the drawings and specifications that apply to the contract (including a drawing schedule with all drawing numbers and revisions).
  • Include the terms of the contract, which would include payment terms and conditions, and insurance conditions.
  • Note special project conditions, including specific project labour agreements and wage rates, working times, and any obstacles and delays which could impact their work.
  • Have specific requirements the contractor may have to comply with, such as particular staffing or equipment requirements.
  • Clearly state what the subcontractor will be supplying and what they will be provided with, this includes amongst other things, services (like power and water), storage and office facilities, cranes, scaffolding, off-loading facilities, security, and insurances, with any charges for using them specified.
  • Include the construction schedule, which highlights the subcontract activities and any discontinuities they should expect in the course of their work.

Contract documentation

The contract 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.

The subcontract contract document must include or make provision for:

  • The scope of works. 
  • The price. 
  • Contract terms and conditions. 
  • Project specifications. 
  • Applicable drawings. 
  • Specific project site conditions. 
  • A list of deliverables. 
  • The subcontract construction schedule clearly showing commissioning and any discontinuities, or the required milestone dates.
  • The safety requirements.
  • Applicable quality requirements, procedures, tests and documentation.
  • Commissioning requirements.
  • Spare parts that must be supplied.
  • Warranties and guarantees required
  • Clarification of what the subcontractor must supply to carry out the works, as well as the contractor’s obligations.

Much of the contract documentation should have formed part of the request to price, or 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.

Project communication

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 the 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 project ground rules. 

Regular project progress meetings should also be held with the subcontractor during the course of construction.

It’s good to document what was discussed in these meetings and distribute the meeting record to all attendees to ensure there’s no misunderstandings.

These meetings will be discussed in another article.

Project inductions

Subcontractors’ personnel should attend a project induction. Unfortunately many of these inductions are poorly presented. However, a good project induction is an opportunity to explain to everyone what’s expected of them on the project in terms of safety, quality and behaviour, as well as explaining how the construction 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? Probably the starting point is by engaging subcontractors who share the same values as your company. It helps if the project contract documentation is unambiguous and clear. After this subcontractors need to be managed, clearly directed, and assisted when needed.

Conclusion – good communication with your contractors is essential

Subcontractors are integral to the success of most construction 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.

As a Contractor have you had a Subcontractor let your project or your company down? What was the reason?

As a Subcontractor have you been misunderstood, or did you misunderstand the GC or Main Contractors intentions and expectations?

Paul Netscher has written several acclaimed easy to read construction management books for owners, contractors, construction managers, construction supervisors and foremen. Titles include ‘Successful Construction Management: The Practical Guide’, and ‘Building a Successful Construction Company: The Practical Guide’, and ‘The Successful Construction Supervisor and Foreman’. The books are available in paper and ebook from most online stores including Amazon. Paul Netscher is also available to help your construction project or company. Visit www.pn-projectmanagement.com for more info. 

© 2020 This article is not to be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission from the author.

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