Retooling Construction Relationships
Retooling construction relationships

Even though subcontractors, by definition, are subservient to the general contractor, they are also an undeniable influence — both positive and negative — on the general contractor’s success. Some general contractors are willing to admit this — others are not. For this reason, there is inconsistency in the way general contractors and subcontractors behave toward one another. Some regard one another as necessary evils and expect to fight through the project. Others regard one another as personal friends, or at least professional allies, and expect to provide mutual support for a successful project. Others are somewhere in between, depending on the level of either conflicting or harmonious moods, attitudes and personalities.

As a supervisory training instructor for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), I taught a course titled “Dynamics Between General Contractors and Subcontractors” in St. Paul, Minnesota. All the attendees were employed by general contractors and held jobsite supervisory positions. At the beginning of the first class, I asked the students to provide one-word definitions for the word “subcontractor.” Positive responses included terms like cooperative, team player, honest, safe, high-quality, on-time and friend. Negative responses included lazy, unsafe, whiner, always late, unreliable, arrogant and liar.

All attendees were convinced their perceptions were correct and they responded accordingly at the jobsite. Those who were more optimistic about their relationships with their subcontractors tended to have more successful projects and those who were pessimistic tended to be less successful.


The Grass Is Always Greener

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to ask the owners of several general contracting companies about their opinion of subcontractors; their responses varied widely. One general contractor commented, “We are proud of the many things we do here with our subcontractors. We take care of them, and they take care of us. We present none of our problems to the customer.”

Another said, “Subs are just necessary evils. We do all the legwork in preconstruction, and they come in at the last minute and want a big profit. They have it easy; all they have to do is bid the work on the plans and specifications that we give them. Then when something goes wrong on the jobsite they whine and ask us to fix all the problems. I wish they would work as hard as we do.”

In talking to subcontractors about their experience with general contractors, I’ve heard the same wide range of opinions. One subcontractor said of general contractors, “General contractors are my lifeblood because all my work comes from them. I would be out of business without them. I give them the respect they deserve, and I’m thankful for the opportunities they provide and the support they give me. I would be lost without them. Plus, two of the general contractors I work with most are my fishing buddies.”

But another subcontractor held a different opinion. “I really like the construction business because you get paid to fight. I don’t get this part about being nice because you have to get them before they get you! Generals intentionally create a wall between us and the customer. They take credit for our job well done and, in the meantime, hold up payment on our invoices. They’re a pain.”

Some prefer putting their best foot forward while others seem to prefer getting started on the wrong foot.


A Double-Edged Sword

Realize that your customers view your subcontractors as a reflection of your ability to manage. When a subcontractor does something good or bad, it will be a direct reflection upon you, because your customers assume you control them. If your subcontractor completes a critical part of the work ahead of schedule, you will get the credit. Likewise, you will receive the blame if the subcontractor is behind schedule. Subcontractors therefore have the same ability as you to either increase or decrease your reputation.

Anyone who knows construction should not be surprised by changes in scope of work, schedules, weather and people. Change is constant but what isn’t constant is the way changes are communicated to your subcontractor. Do you give timely notice so the change can be accommodated with efficiency and lack of drama? Or do you call late on Friday afternoon demanding that several changes be made first thing on Monday morning? Yes, there are exceptions for last-minute modifications, but subcontractors grow tired quickly when contractors make exaggerated requests. Likewise, a blooper on your part should not constitute an emergency for the subcontractor.

Disputes will always be part of construction. Sometimes the subcontractor is right, and you are wrong. When that happens, come clean and support them. The road to project success is a two-way street. Subcontractors should not be expected to finance the general contractor’s portion of the project through intentionally delayed payments. If you expect them to perform on time, they should know that you’ll pay on time.


On the other hand, don’t be afraid to distance yourself from professional troublemakers. Some subcontractors are unwilling to take orders or adhere to the terms of the subcontract because they believe the rules are unfair. They will attempt to disrupt the project and point fingers over taking personal responsibility. Some people just can’t get along and instead enjoy the challenge of a fight. These types of people usually have a chip on their shoulder and think they are smart enough to wiggle around legitimate contractual obligations in the scope of their work. They also try to take advantage of imprecise contract language by converting requirements into illegitimate change order requests, even though the costs were already included in the original bid. These subcontractors like to point out the errors of others yet are unwilling to provide positive direction. They are dramatic while drawing a line in the sand and operate within an alienated position while attempting to exercise power in addition to making endless demands of your time. The best thing to do is cut your losses by removing them from the jobsite. If your subcontractor exhibits any of the following red flags, be ready for a bumpy road.

  • Asks questions about the procedures for arbitration and litigation at a pre-bid meeting
  • Submits a super-low bid price
  • Is unable to provide a performance or payment bond
  • Submits a scope letter after the bid date instead of before
  • Makes nickel-and-dime change order requests
  • Claims “We forgot to include this,” or “We were told not to include this,” as a reason for large change order amounts
  • Delivers a pattern of broken promises on schedule and other commitments
  • Takes shortcuts on quality
  • Presents fabricated or forged lien waivers from their subcontractors

Keep in mind the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you will succeed with your subcontractors, you are right. If you think you will fail with your subcontractor, you are right.