Contractors face an interesting dilemma in their relationship with owners. Every contractor wants to be a trusted and valued provider. Of course, owners hire contractors to provide capabilities and expertise that the owner does not possess. So how should contractors communicate with owners about problems that arise on their jobs? Who should be advised of a problem and when? And how much information should be shared in order to solve problems but maintain a contractor’s role as a trusted and valued provider?
BUILD TRUST EARLY
Contractors are well-served by early establishment of planned and routine communication with the owners and the project team. This helps to establish trust and confidence. Establishing routine communication will allow the contractor to build an expectation that owners and team members will be a part of problem solving discussions.
WHEN TO COMMUNICATE
When problems arise, a contractor should rapidly assess two things: 1) the magnitude of the problem and 2) any legal obligations relating to notices under project documents or law. Although catastrophic problems are rare, the owner should be notified immediately when they occur. Next, any legally required communication should be provided within the specified time period.
HOW AND WHAT TO COMMUNICATE
Regardless of the timing, the manner in which the problem is communicated may matter almost as much as what is communicated. Contractors should know that an owner will want some idea of a problem’s severity and will want to know potential solutions. An owner will quickly lose confidence if problems are presented without practical options to resolve those problems. The initial listing of solutions does not need to be definitive or exhaustive, but contractors should provide options. Additionally, when communicating with owners, contractors should:
- Document problems clearly and succinctly in writing, with an explanation.
- Frame communications as an invitation to solve the problem. Any blame can be apportioned later.
- Clearly distinguish between facts and assumptions.
WHEN TO INCLUDE YOUR ATTORNEY
If there is a legal or contractual violation, contractors should contact their attorney immediately. If there are relationship issues with an owner, a contractor may want to consult legal counsel but not include them in conversations. If the situation becomes adversarial or if another party begins copying their attorney on emails, contractors should engage their attorney immediately.
Walking the tightrope of transparency in construction projects is not easy and can be more art than science. The most effective and proactive steps a contractor can take are to build relationships and open communication lines early in the process of undertaking a project.