06 Feb Avoiding complaints triggered by poor communication
Project clients regularly make assumptions about the role of the RPEQ within a broad and integrated project. They often do not know what the RPEQ is supposed to do, or critically, what they are not responsible for and are not going to do. Consistent with the nature of assumptions, while the RPEQ’s role may be limited to, for instance, design or inspection, the client may believe that the RPEQ has a supervisory role.
Of course, none of this presents any real problem until there is a problem. When, for whatever reason, a project goes wrong, the client’s focus may shift from the RPEQ being a distant figure, to being the focus of complaint about the project as a whole.
In some cases, the RPEQ’s conduct will legitimately be subject to scrutiny and assessment. For RPEQs, the best defence against this is diligent and responsible practice in the first instance.
“BPEQ has a statutory function of receiving and processing complaints against RPEQs…”
As the regulator, BPEQ has a statutory function of receiving and processing complaints against RPEQs and notifications about other persons who are unlawfully carrying out professional engineering services or using the protected RPEQ title or being held out as such.
In assessing complaints against RPEQs, one of the first steps is to identify the scope of the RPEQ’s responsibilities from the complainant, other relevant persons and the subject RPEQ.
In many cases, this process is routine and identifies that the complaint squarely relates to the issue for which the RPEQ was responsible. This falls into the legitimate category outlined above.
However, this process often reveals that there is a significant difference between what client’s believe that the RPEQ was doing or responsible for doing and what the RPEQ is actually responsible for doing or has done.
While in some cases, this is a matter of poor scoping, in other cases it comes down to a misunderstanding of the RPEQ’s role and responsibilities within a project. At the most basic level, the RPEQ is actually doing ‘X’ but the client believes that they are also doing ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. It takes little imagination to predict that when any problem about ‘X’, ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ arises, the RPEQ may be subject to complaint.
“…it comes down to a misunderstanding of the RPEQ’s role and responsibilities within a project.”
While it is not possible to guarantee clients understand a RPEQ’s role, it is advisable for all parties to communicate the nature, scope and exclusions of a RPEQ’s involvement and establish dispute resolution steps. Communication, particularly early communication, is the single best step that can be undertaken to prevent or resolve disputes at the lowest level.
Ideally, communication would occur at the time of engagement. This is contemplated by paragraph 2.3 of the Code of Practice.
Time invested in communicating and contextualising scope from the outset may provide certainty for RPEQ’s about their role, be a reference point for future communications and provide relevant information to clients about what the RPEQ is going to do and not going to do.
A simple example where communication may be beneficial is that if an engagement is for design only, that unless there are further engagements, the RPEQ will have no involvement in the construction. Another example is where a RPEQ inspects a project and (if satisfied) issues a Form 16. In this case, it may be beneficial to communicate such engagement does not involve supervision, which may be (wrongly) assumed by the client.If a client wants a RPEQ to provide construction or supervision a broader scope of engagement will need to be discussed and agreed upon.
If pro-active communication is not practical, it may still be advantageous to communicate at the first opportunity if the client raises concerns or issues. The earlier communication occurs, the more likely an issue will be identified and resolved before escalation. However inconvenient this may appear, it will be much more time efficient than dealing with the same issue as part of a formal disciplinary complaint process through BPEQ, particularly if the complaint is wrongly targeted due to a client’s assumption.
Conversely, if a client perceives that a RPEQ is refusing to communicate with them about a material issue, this may lead to escalation including a complaint to BPEQ, which may have been avoidable through communication.
“…to communicate with fairness, honesty and based on adequate knowledge.”
The Code of Practice creates obligations on RPEQs to advise clients of their name and contact details and to communicate with fairness, honesty and based on adequate knowledge.
While these are the minimum requirements, there are sound reasons for RPEQs to extend their communication with clients to inform about their professional role. Not only is it professional conduct, it may prevent or de-escalate complaints. Additionally, it will almost certainly enhance your reputation and relationship with clients, many of whom will appreciate the effort in a competitive market.