The Things Contractors Say

Water Main

Shortly after I started inspecting construction almost thirty years ago, I started realizing most contractors have the same response to similar situations. When I was younger and asked a contractor to do something, the typical response was something like, “Honey, I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and ….” Then they would go on to tell me why I was wrong and they were right. Or they would try to reassure me that whatever they did would be ok, and they knew this because of their vast experience – obviously I could not know that because I had not worked as long as they had.

Of course, not all contractors try to convince you that they know better or you just aren’t experienced enough to understand what should really be done. Some are very open about not wanting to do what you ask. In these instances there’s the straighforward responses of, “you and I will be long gone when this fails” or “don’t worry – it’s getting buried – no one will see it.” At least with these they are honest about admitting something might not be right, but are hoping that you don’t care enough to require them to do it right. I always liked the one, “you’ll never see it from (insert next town over).” And one that always annoyed me was “we ain’t building a watch.”

Fortunately for me, I was usually confident what I was asking them to do most definitely needed to be done. So the subtle intimidation never really worked with me. My experiences working for cities had given me opportunities to see the failed results of poor construction. And you don’t have to wait 30 years to see failures when you work in public works. So most of the time, I could describe exactly what would happen if they didn’t do what was required. And I was also fortunate to work with some really excellent contractors who never used those responses and brought a lot of value to a project.

But after all those years and having thought I’d heard every response in the book, the other day on my construction job I heard a new one. The foreman on my water main job had neglected to follow some of the specifications. And when I called his boss to try to straighten everything out, he obviously did not like me calling to complain and asking him to fix things. So his response to me was, “you better watch it because you’re going to get yourself a reputation.” I’m still not sure what he really meant . But whatever it was, I do know it was obviously a response he felt would scare me enough for me to change my request or not bother him anymore. But instead of intimidating me, it made me think, I really need to start writing down the things contractors say.


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Corey McCarren

I think you’d get a reputation as someone who realizes the importance of a job well done, or at least I’d hope so.

Peter G. Tuttle

Pam: Some of the things our government peers say are also a hoot. The one I have remembered all these many years is the CO that said (unfortunately for them – in writing) “I don’t have time to save $1 million.” Wow. I think we could co-author a very funny and educational book. Cheers. Pete

Wendell Lilly

Your are write about writing things down. What I learn from one of my past Manager to ” Inspect what you Expect”

Jaime Gracia

Pam – Sounds like you may have been a victim of sexism as well. If I were a government manager, and a contractor told me what they told you, I would have them removed from the project. I would never say that to my client, under any circumstances.

I almost always interact with my government clients via writing, in some sort of fashion. Especially after meetings or verbal communications, to ensure there is no misunderstanding. I also learned my lesson many years ago, when a government program manager threw their contractors under the bus to protect themselves from their poor decisions and incompetence. That is always the path of least resistance; blame the contractor.

Written records are always the best path. I had a contracting officer tell me not too long ago “Industry Days are illegal,” as an excuse for the almost Fort Knox-like closed-door policy the organization employed in their “interactions” with Industry. Unbelievable.

Like Pete says, we can write a very interesting book from both vantage points.

Pam Broviak

Thanks for all the comments! As I wrote the post, I was thinking, as Peter suggested, that contractors probably could also share some funny comments clients say. Over the years I’ve learned to really watch how I respond to people – even a comment that at the time in a certain context might be ok can later sound really bad when repeated back. But occasionally I still say things that later I think probably could be taken the wrong way – it’s a constant process of thinking before I speak which I’m not sure I’ll ever completely master. In the end, as Jaime pointed out, I’ve found it’s safest to put communications in writing.

As for being a victim of sexism, you can’t imagine the level of abuse I’ve put up with working in construction for about 30 years. I guess after all these years I’ve just gotten used to it. But I have to admit things are a lot better today than back when I was 20.

Peter G. Tuttle

Hello again, Pam. It’s funny that the basic procurement process – when viewed at the macro level – mostly seems to work and has worked for many years. What really has changed since..let’s say 1776…is the people involved in the process and the technology that those people use to execute their procurements. The human factor is what makes this career field interesting and challenging – we can’t make up the stuff that we see or hear. Anyway, I think we’d have a best seller and probably be invited to the Hill for testimony, so let’s forget my idea of writing a book!!! Cheers and have a great day. Pete