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How to Properly Measure Contractor Engagement

By Karoly Ban Matei
Published: May 25, 2022
Key Takeaways

Contractor engagement is an essential ingredient to success with long-term trade partners. Measuring it can be tricky, but it's not impossible.

Caption: Shaking hands at construction site Source: Ridofranz / iStock

Not many organizations can complete their work by relying solely on their own employees. Short timelines, the scope of work, the specialized nature of client needs, and other factors make it almost impossible for companies to execute the entire scope of a project without the help of contractors.

Many companies use contractors sporadically, calling them in as needed. In other cases, however, the contractors become an integral part of a company's work process. Organizations that hold these kinds of long-term relationships with their contractors often refer to them as trade partners.

This integrated approach is mutually beneficial, but it also complicates the relationship between the contractors and the companies that employ them.

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When you're hiring a contractor for a one-off project, your overall concerns are simple. You just want the work to get done and get done properly. With an extended contractor relationship, however, things are more complicated. They're now an extension of your workforce and need to be managed more like an employee than a temporary hired hand. You want them to be as engaged as they can be, because that engagement is a predictor for the success of both your operations and a necessary condition for quality and safe operations.

In other words, you want them to be invested and committed to your project and the role they play in it.

To achieve that, you'll need to do more than simply draft a contract and pay the contractor's rate.

(Find out Why Worker Engagement Is Key to Data Capture and Tracking Safety KPIs)

But before we talk about improving engagement with trade partners, let's start with a more fundamental question. How can you measure contractor engagement in the first place?

Measuring Contractor Engagement

If engagement is understood as an emotional involvement and commitment to the work, we're already at a disadvantage. How can you measure something so intangible?

The very short answer is that you can't. Not in the traditional way, at least. Engagement is unquantifiable, so it can't be another metric you can track on a digital dashboard.

But as Dr. Edwards Deming observed in his book The New Economics, “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. And there lies the real answer. While you can't measure contractor engagement pers se, you can still manage it.

Managing engagement is done through actions on both sides. And you can absolutely measure those actions.

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As the hiring company, you have control over most elements of the work process. Therefore, the bulk of the actions that will foster engagement with your trade partners will have to come from your corner.

So, where do you start?

Prequalifying Contractors

The first step is to determine what qualties you look for in a trade partner:

  • What skills should they have?
  • Which of your corporate values do you want them to share?
  • What are the training requirements for its leadership team and workforce?
  • What processes and equipment do they need to execute the work successfully?

If the contractor meets those expectations, without having to alter their program and practices, you've found a good match. If their employees have bought into their program, their behavior will likely align with your expectations as well.

At this stage, you can measure success by seeing who is present on site.

If your internal prequalification system works as intended, with participation from all departments (operations, quality, safety, and so on), then you should not see any contractors that have not met your internal requirements during your site visits. If you do, you are not living to your own expectations and your trade partners are unlikely to be engaged either.

(Find out Why Contracor Qualification Shouldn't Stop at Prequalification)

Onboarding

Bringing a new trade partner on board is another opportunity to communicate your values and expectation.

During this process, they should hear the same kind of message they heard during the selection. They should be introduced to the key personnel they will be working with or who can facilitate their work, from operation to safety and accounts payable. If available, the new trade partner should be provided access to shared tools, such as safety documentation and systems, and provided with training to learn how these tools are to be used.

Your onboarding process is also an opportunity to make it clear that your safety department will act as a support service to them. Providing this kind of support is a great way to increase trade partner engagement. After all, contractors have concerns that go beyond getting a paycheck. They also want to work in an safe environment that provides security, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for development.

The following measures can help you ensure that those higher-level needs are met on your worksite:

  • Provide each trade partner with a company orientation. The trade partner should also facilitate this for all their subcontractors who will be working for you.
  • Provide additional (free, if possible) training that would bridge the trade partner's experience with your expectations and scope of work.
  • Include trade partners in toolbox talks and safety meetings. Make time for them to teach you about their work - a top-down approach generally doesn't work well for safety and learning.
  • Give trade partners perks for working for you and with you. These perks can range from the free training mentioned above to leveraging your purchasing power to give them access to discounts on safety equipment.

Qualitative Safety

Running a care-based safety system (as opposed to a compliance-based one) is the best way to improve trade partner engagement. Showing contractors that you are interested in learning and system improvements (and not in disciplining them as a way to solve problems) will help build trust and ensure their participation in developing and executing your work.

The first thing is to focus on qualitative safety - concentrating on identifying, discussing, and fixing safety and organizational issues. While I would not say that completing documents as required by the legislator or company policies is not important (after all, safety systems have a compliance component), it should be communicated to trade partners that the purpose of these prescribed actions is to increase the physical (and mental) safety of your employees and trades. It's an action in which all parties have a vested interest.

What does it mean to do qualitative safety? There are myriad ways to go about it, so I will focus only on two elements that are universal among organizations. The identification of these issues can take place in the office through the formal document review process or on-site, but they should generally be addressed on the spot, on-site.

Qualitative Hazard Assessments

in my experience, most trades and employees complete the prescribed hazard assessments, satisfying compliance requirements, but most of those assessments are really weak. Often the forms don't contain much more than a name and a date and have little value when it comes to identifying and controlling hazards.

The safety coaches and company supervisors should identify when these issues arise and coach trade partners about the importance of a good hazard assessment. I like to say that the hazard assessment is a conversation with the crew, discussing the day ahead. It should cover a lot of the same bases:

  • What do we do?
  • What is different from other jobs?
  • What could go wrong?
  • What equipment, policies, and tools do we have at our disposal to protect ourselves?
  • Will those really protect us?

Your safety personnel should stress that the contractors are really doing this to protect themselves from physical harm, not because somebody said they have to. Also, that the time spent completing a good hazard assessment is going to pay back - if not in physical time then definitely in physical integrity.

To measure actions regarding hazard assessments, count and review these coaching sessions with trade partners. Develop action plans based on these.

Inspections

How many times have you done an inspection because the prescribed time to complete one came around? Contractors are no different. They will likely do the same, especially when under operational pressure. Similar to hazard assessments, you should ensure that your trades not only complete inspections but complete good ones.

What makes an inspection a good one? I'm glad you asked.

A good inspection is one in which one of the parties (the inspector or the crew being inspected) has learned something. If there is any non-compliance, then the crew learns something from the inspector. When the crew has done something awesome, especially if it can be replicated in other operations, then the inspector will learn something - as will the entire organization and its trades.

I like to tell supervisors and trades that they should not select an area or site for an inspection based on a quota or time of day, but strictly because there was an obvious low-hanging fruit. When you see an obvious opportunity for improvement or a great practice, that's how you know your stop will be worthwhile.

As for measuring this, you will know that your trade partners (and your team) are doing a good job when a high percentage of inspection forms have identified and fixed issues and resulted in coaching moments or personal recognition.

Keep in mind there is no recommended percentage you should reach. It is is all about improvement.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the purpose of the inspections is to find stuff that is “wrong.” It's about seizing opportunities for improvement. Otherwise, you will always have “perfect inspections” with no findings. And while perfect inspections might satisfy compliance requirements (a certain number of inspections per month), they will not result in improvements to the safety climate and working conditions.

Meaningful Interactions and Two- (Make That Three-) Way Communication

Formal inspections are few and far in between. Event reports and accident investigations are even more scarce. You should not limit ourselves to these. Instead, you should actively seek learning opportunities and include your trade partners in them.

One easy way to do this is to have your team perform what I like call meaningful interactions. Your supervisors and safety personnel should make it their business to stop and interact with all of your trade partners. Start with a hello and advance into a conversation about work. If any low-hanging fruits are present, start there. If not, ask a few “how” questions and see where the conversation goes.

Use these interactions as your trojan horse for coaching and mentoring. The whole purpose of them is to learn about your trade partners and extend support when they struggle.

You should document and categorize the learnings using a short form, such as existing Hazard iD, Near Miss, Personal Blunder, or Positive Recognition. This way, they can be reviewed and communicated to trade partners and management. Keep in mind that learning increases with the number of people involved in the process.

What actions should you measure to ensure that you're fostering engagement with your trades? The options are really limitless, but here are a few of them:

  • Make sure your team interacts with all of your trade partners, not only those who have been labeled high risk. If using an electronic safety system, it is really easy to filter and see if you are giving proper attention to all trade partners. And don’t be afraid that doing this will interrupt them from working - most of them will be more than glad to see somebody taking a genuine interest in them.
  • Document these interactions. We have short memories and even shorter time to verbally share with everybody else. Notes will come handy.
  • Review these interactions and send a copy of your document and a short message to the trade partner’s head office, so the learning is passed along to all their employees and sub-trades. Don’t forget to share the positive findings and thank them for a job well done - they will appreciate it!
  • Provide some insights to your management team about interactions with trade partners in your formal reporting (weekly, monthly, quarterly). That way, management understands their performance, strengths and weak points, and formulate action plans to respon to these.

Learning Teams

When something doesn't go as planned, hiring companies are generally quick to investigate and recommend that the trade partner gets more training, writes a new policy, or improves their processes. The problem with this is that those same trade partners are typically excluded from the conversation.

When that happens, you are doing safety to them, not with them. It's no surprise, then, that the process is disengaging and seldom well-received.

To fix this issue, treat any deviation from expected outcomes as a learning opportunity. Learn from them and incorporate the lesson in future activities and programs.

You should build a learning team for each unexpected event, include your trade partner in the team, and work through the issues focusing on how the event happened. This will help you find helpful solutions and avoid the pointed “who” and “why” question that generally results in fingerpointing rather than positive results.

To measure actions, ensure that the findings of the learning team find their way into your event report and analysis.

Summary

Fostering trade partner engagement can be a difficult process. Measuring how engaged your contractors are can be even more challenging. But there are actions that will encourage greater engagement from your trade partners:

  • Start by selecting the right contractors - trade partners whose values are aligned to yours are more likely to have higher engagement
  • Train your trade partners (and their subs) like you would train your own employees
  • Engage with them frequently at the field level
  • Document these interactions and use them as the basis for teaching moments
  • Focus on coaching and mentoring long-term contractors
  • Prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to safety documentation - don't just complete the documents but make sure you can also learn from them
  • Provide safety performance insights regarding trade partners to their management team and yours
  • Provide scheduled and unscheduled feedback
  • Include trade partners in your Leaning Teams so that you do safety with them, not to them

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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

Profile Picture of Karoly Ban Matei

Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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