Engineering New Zealand receives around 50 concerns and complaints about Chartered Professional Engineers and members each year. But they can offer valuable lessons for the engineering profession.

Some of the complaints Engineering New Zealand receives relate to serious issues of competence or ethical conduct. Many others arise from miscommunication, inattention to client care, or a misunderstanding over what the engineer has been engaged to do.

We have received several concerns recently involving structural engineers undertaking geotechnical assessments or giving geotechnical advice. Structural engineers and geotechnical engineers work closely, and their roles can overlap. Most engineers working in structural or civil fields have at least a basic understanding of geotechnical engineering, and many “general practitioner” engineers will routinely work across all three fields of practice.

In many cases, it may be well within an engineer’s competence to provide geotechnical advice, even if that is not their primary practice field. However, building consent authorities may require that geotechnical advice is provided by a geotechnical specialist, or ask for specific geotechnical input to support a resource or building consent application. In other instances, we have been told that structural engineers have not sought geotechnical advice when it was needed, because of their client’s concerns about cost, or because they decided to rely on their own skills and judgment.

It is important to keep in mind you are obliged to only act within your areas of competence. Engineers working on structural projects should be mindful of the need to ensure their client obtains the right level of geotechnical input for the project, to satisfy the BCA’s requirements and good engineering practice. This is particularly important when working for lay clients who may not have a professional’s understanding of the consenting process.

We often receive complaints about engineers withholding PS4s or other documentation needed for building consent, on the basis that complainants have not paid their fees. In our experience, complainants often refuse to pay their fees if they are unhappy with the terms of payment, or they are unsatisfied with the project. For example, if the engineer’s services didn’t cover what the client thought they would have – perhaps the engineer didn’t carry out inspections, or the client misunderstood that the engineer would be managing the project and the consent applications. We don’t have jurisdiction to investigate pure invoicing disputes, but these often play a part in broader engineering concerns that come to us.

Most complaints of this nature stem from a breakdown in communication. Engineering is a specialised and technical field which most people don’t have common knowledge about. Clients won’t always ask the right questions at the early stages and may realise later they are missing vital services or information. Clear and informative communication with clients – ensuring the client knows what they need, knows what the engineer can deliver and has an idea about how much this will cost – can significantly reduce the chance of a dispute arising.

When we receive concerns, one of the first questions we ask is whether the complainant has tried to resolve their issue directly with the engineer involved. Often, their response is that the engineer has refused to engage with them or has brushed off their concerns without adequately explaining themselves. More than once, an engineer has refused to respond to concerns raised with Engineering New Zealand, which has led to the concerns process taking longer, and being more difficult to resolve, than if they had engaged with us from the outset.

It’s difficult to deal with unhappy clients – and more so if those clients are perceived as troublesome or have not paid their bills. But facing into these conversations early can avoid a complaint or commercial dispute arising in the first place, saving you stress and time.

Responding to concerns is part of professional life. We recognise it’s never pleasant to be on the receiving end of criticism or complaints, but your response has a significant impact on the speed and manner in which complaints are resolved.

View our managing complaints toolkit

This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of EG magazine.