What is Subcontracting? How Does Subcontracting Work?

Subcontracting plays a vital role in the business world, fostering collaboration and efficiency. In the United Kingdom, subcontracting is a common practice that allows companies to share the workload and expertise. In this article, we will explore the concept of subcontracting, its benefits, and the key considerations associated with it.

As an independent contractor, there may come a point in time where you need to consider subcontracting-you might decide to take on work as a subcontractor, or hire a subcontractor for your projects.

Whichever option you're exploring, how do you decide if the benefits truly outweigh the cons? And are there important tips you need to keep in mind?

By Chris Andreou
Last updated
February 2, 2024
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What is Subcontracting?

Subcontracting is a business arrangement where a company (the subcontractor) agrees to perform a specific task or provide a particular service for another company (the main contractor). Essentially, it involves outsourcing a portion of work to a third party, allowing the main contractor to focus on its core competencies.

Key Players in Subcontracting:

  1. Main Contractor: The main contractor is the primary entity that has secured a project or contract. They may decide to subcontract certain tasks to other companies to ensure the project's successful completion.
  2. Subcontractor: The subcontractor is the company hired by the main contractor to perform specific tasks. Subcontractors bring specialized skills, resources, or expertise to the project, contributing to its overall success.

How does Subcontracting Work?

Subcontracting involves the delegation of specific tasks or services from a main contractor to a subcontractor. The process of subcontracting typically follows a series of steps that help establish a clear and effective working relationship between the main contractor and the subcontractor. Here's an overview of how subcontracting works:

  1. Identification of Need: The main contractor identifies a need for specialized skills, services, or tasks that are outside their core competencies. This could be due to a lack of in-house expertise, the need for additional resources, or a desire to streamline operations.
  2. Request for Proposal (RFP) or Invitation to Bid: The main contractor may issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) or invite potential subcontractors to bid on the specific tasks or services required. This document outlines the project details, scope of work, deadlines, and other relevant information.
  3. Selection of Subcontractor: Subcontractors interested in the opportunity submit proposals or bids. The main contractor evaluates these submissions based on factors such as expertise, cost, timeline, and past performance. The main contractor then selects the subcontractor that best meets the project requirements.
  4. Contractual Agreement: Once a subcontractor is selected, both parties enter into a contractual agreement. This document formalizes the terms of the collaboration, including the scope of work, deliverables, payment terms, deadlines, quality standards, and any other relevant conditions. It is crucial to have a clear and comprehensive contract to avoid misunderstandings later on.
  5. Project Execution: The subcontractor begins working on the assigned tasks as outlined in the contract. They may use their own resources, workforce, and equipment to complete the work. The main contractor monitors progress and ensures that the subcontractor adheres to quality standards and timelines.
  6. Communication and Collaboration: Open and transparent communication between the main contractor and subcontractor is essential. Regular updates, progress reports, and collaborative discussions help maintain a positive working relationship and ensure that any issues or challenges are addressed promptly.
  7. Quality Control and Assurance: The main contractor is responsible for ensuring that the subcontractor's work meets the required quality standards. Quality control measures may include inspections, testing, and regular evaluations to verify that the project is progressing according to specifications.
  8. Payment: Payments to the subcontractor are typically made according to the terms outlined in the contract. This could be based on milestones, completion of specific tasks, or a predetermined schedule. Ensuring that payments are made promptly is important for maintaining a positive relationship.
  9. Completion and Evaluation: Once the subcontractor completes the assigned tasks, the main contractor evaluates the overall success of the collaboration. Lessons learned from the subcontracting experience may inform future decisions and improvements in the subcontracting process.

By following these steps, the subcontracting process aims to leverage the strengths of both the main contractor and the subcontractor, resulting in the successful completion of projects with efficiency and expertise.

What is a Subcontractor?

A subcontractor is a business or a person that undertakes work for a company as part of a larger project. In undertaking a contract from a contractor, subcontractors carry out work that the contractor can’t perform, but remains responsible for. In the world of construction, manufacturing, or service industries, subcontractors play a crucial role in the overall completion of a project. Rather than handling all aspects of a project themselves, main contractors may choose to delegate certain responsibilities to subcontractors who possess expertise in particular areas.

A subcontractor provides his or her services under a contract for service. This is a legally binding agreement between a business and a self-employed individual.

Subcontractors aren’t a part of your business - you don’t manage or supervise them, provide instructions on how they should perform their work or have line management responsibilities over them. Subcontractors deliver the service to your or your client ‘as if they were you’. 

Subcontractors may be engaged for fixed-term contracts, task-based contracts with no specified end date or long-term assignments.

Characteristics of Subcontractors:
  1. Specialization: Subcontractors are typically chosen for their specialized skills or knowledge in a particular field. They bring expertise that the main contractor may not have in-house.
  2. Task-Specific: Subcontractors are usually responsible for specific tasks or components of a project. This allows the main contractor to focus on its core competencies while ensuring that specialized work is carried out by experts in the respective field.
  3. Independence: While subcontractors work in collaboration with the main contractor, they often operate as independent entities. They may have their own workforce, equipment, and management structure.
  4. Contractual Agreement: The relationship between a main contractor and subcontractor is formalized through a contractual agreement. This document outlines the scope of work, deliverables, payment terms, deadlines, and other relevant details.
  5. Temporary Engagement: Subcontractors are usually engaged for the duration of a specific project. Once their assigned tasks are completed, the contractual relationship may come to an end.

Subcontractor Examples 

  • A digital marketing agency may engage a copywriter to perform the content and copywriting tasks as part of a larger project 
  • In the construction industry, subcontractors often include electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and other specialized trades. These subcontractors are hired to handle specific aspects of a construction project.
  • A designer may subcontract a logo design task to another graphic designer
  • Contractors in the IT sector may subcontract specialized services such as software development, network installation, or cybersecurity to external firms with expertise in those areas.
  • Manufacturers may subcontract the production of certain components or parts to specialized suppliers, allowing them to focus on the assembly of the final product.
A subcontractor pointing out an error on a piece of paper

Advantages of Subcontracting

Subcontracting is a strategic business practice that offers several advantages to companies, prompting them to engage external entities for specific tasks or services. Here are some key reasons why companies choose to subcontract:

  1. Specialized Expertise: Subcontracting allows companies to tap into the specialized knowledge and skills of external experts. When a particular task requires expertise that the main contractor lacks in-house, bringing in a subcontractor with the necessary proficiency can enhance the overall quality and efficiency of the project.
  2. Cost Efficiency: Subcontracting can be a cost-effective solution. Instead of hiring and training new employees or investing in additional resources, companies can outsource specific tasks to subcontractors. This can lead to cost savings in terms of salaries, benefits, and infrastructure.
  3. Flexibility and Scalability: Subcontracting provides companies with flexibility in managing workloads. They can easily scale their workforce up or down based on project requirements without the long-term commitments associated with hiring permanent staff. This adaptability is particularly beneficial for handling fluctuating work volumes.
  4. Focus on Core Competencies: By outsourcing non-core activities, companies can concentrate on their core competencies. This specialization allows them to be more competitive in their core business areas, leading to increased productivity and improved overall performance.
  5. Resource Optimization: Subcontracting allows companies to optimize their resources more effectively. They can allocate internal resources to tasks that align with their strengths and assign specialized or labor-intensive work to subcontractors who are better equipped to handle those aspects.
  6. Risk Management: Subcontracting can be a risk mitigation strategy. Companies can share the risks associated with a project by distributing tasks among multiple entities. This helps in diversifying potential challenges and avoiding over-reliance on internal capabilities.
  7. Time Savings: Subcontractors often have the expertise and resources readily available, which can lead to significant time savings. This is especially crucial in industries where time-to-market or project deadlines are critical.
  8. Access to Technology and Innovation: Subcontractors may bring advanced technologies, tools, or innovative approaches to a project. This access to external advancements can enhance the overall competitiveness and efficiency of the main contractor.
  9. Geographical Reach: Subcontracting allows companies to engage with subcontractors who may be located in different regions or countries. This geographical flexibility enables access to a broader pool of talent, resources, or markets.
  10. Compliance and Regulations: Subcontractors may have expertise in handling specific regulatory environments or compliance requirements. Engaging subcontractors with knowledge of UK regulations can help companies ensure that their projects meet legal standards.

In summary, subcontracting is a strategic decision that enables companies to leverage external resources, expertise, and flexibility, leading to improved efficiency, cost savings, and a more competitive position in the market. It allows organizations to focus on their core strengths while efficiently managing projects and tasks beyond their immediate capabilities.

Considerations in Subcontracting:
  1. Legal Agreements: A well-defined contract between the main contractor and subcontractor is important. It should outline the scope of work, payment terms, deadlines, and other relevant details to avoid misunderstandings.
  2. Quality Control: Main contractors must ensure that subcontractors adhere to quality standards. Regular monitoring and communication are essential to maintain consistency in the project's outcomes.
  3. Risk Management: Assessing and managing risks is vital in subcontracting. Main contractors should identify potential risks associated with subcontracted tasks and develop contingency plans to mitigate them.
  4. Communication and Collaboration: Open and transparent communication is key to successful subcontracting. Regular updates, progress reports, and collaborative efforts help in maintaining a positive working relationship between the main contractor and subcontractor.

Becoming a Subcontractor

Perhaps you've experienced a slowdown in your work, or find that you've been getting the same type of projects and clients repeatedly.

If you're looking for a change, becoming a subcontractor can help open the door to other types of jobs you're interested in-such as larger-scale projects that you aren't typically able to land as an independent contractor.   

There are downsides to taking on subcontracting work, and you'll need to weigh the pros and cons depending on your situation. 

As a subcontractor, you might have to work at a lower rate than what you typically charge. Plus, if you're not credited for your work, you may not be able to include the project in your portfolio - something that is not ideal for many business owners.

Yet, these factors may not be an issue at all for some contractors - perhaps the project offers a good learning opportunity, and could increase their chances of landing better-paying jobs down the line. 

It's also important to keep in mind that subcontractors are responsible for paying taxes on their income (the Internal Revenue Service will look at various factors to determine if you are a subcontractor or an employee. Most companies will then accept the determination of the Internal Revenue Service when they hire you as an independent contractor).

If you've decided that this is something you want to move ahead with, here are a couple of tips to keep in mind: 

Do your research on contractors and companies you want to work with

Review their websites in detail, paying attention to testimonials they've received from past clients and projects they've included in their portfolios.

This will help you ascertain that they have the expertise, as well as the types of projects that you're looking to learn about and work on. It also helps to check out their LinkedIn profiles for testimonials from subcontractors, or other individuals whom they've worked with. 

Create detailed contracts

As your project progresses, disagreements may occur between you and your contractor about a variety of issues, such as the scope of your job or how the project should be executed.

To minimise uncertainty or instances of miscommunication, it's best to detail your agreement clearly in the contract. For example, if you are a self-employed person in the construction industry, you can define more clear and defined scopes of work and reduce the risk of errors by communicating requirements and timelines more easily.

As a subcontractor, you may be paid only after your primary independent contractor has received payment - so we recommend indicating when and how you'll be paid in your contract.

It's best to specify a time frame in which you'll be paid. For example, you may request to be paid within seven days after your construction industry contractor has received payment from the client. 

Don’t jump at every opportunity

It can be tempting to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, especially if you’re experiencing a lull period in your business. 

But not every project is a good fit if you are in self employment, so it’s best to be selective and avoid over-committing. Here are a few questions that can help you figure out if an assignment is a good match: 

  • Are the project requirements a good fit with my skills?
  • Is the timeline realistic?
  • Does the project offer a long-term opportunity?
  • Does the contractor have positive reviews and a good hiring history?
Factor in extra time

Before you decide to take on a project, check in with the prime contractor about the following:

  • How much input will the prime contractor have into your work? If he or she wants to review your work in detail, you’ll need to factor in several days to a week. This ensures that you’ll have sufficient time to make changes, before your work is submitted to the end client. 
  • Is revision time accounted for? If the client requests for revisions, will the contractor extend your deadline to allow for revisions to be made? Or will you have to factor in additional time for revisions before confirming a deadline?
Get insured

Most clients and prime contractors will want to ascertain that you have an insurance policy in place before they engage you as a subcontractor.

Public liability insurance could be one of the most important covers you have when you work in self employment. This is an excellent option for independent contractors as it covers the legal costs and compensation payments if a business is deemed to be responsible for injury or property damage to an independent contractor, client or member of the public.

Here’s an example: let’s say you’ve left construction industry equipment lying around, and as a result, someone trips over it and is injured. If a claim becomes a legal matter, the policy will cover the costs involved - including any compensation you need to pay.

Don't forget to also consider health insurance. There are many companies that in fact specialise in hassle-free protection for self-employed people, freelancers, small business owners, and sole traders.

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Hiring a Subcontractor

You may be offered a lucrative project, but you're having second thoughts because the scope of work is more than what you can manage on your own.

Here's when you can think about hiring a subcontractor, as it increases your capacity to take on projects that you couldn't have taken on as previously as an individual contractor. 

If this is an option you're considering, we've included a few helpful tips on hiring and managing subcontractors below:

Perform a background check on your subcontractor:

Before you enter into a job agreement with your contractor, make sure that you've performed a thorough background check.

Ask for references, and review their portfolio in to check that they have the specialist skills and experience you require.

Be aware of the changes to your job role as a primary contractor:

A significant amount of your time will now be spent on project management and client management roles.

You'll need to keep your clients up to date on the progress, manage deadlines and handle any concerns or issues that may arise. Make sure that you take all of these into account when you provide a self employed quote for the project.

Sign a subcontractor agreement:

A subcontractor agreement protects you from taking on liability for subcontractors you hire for your projects.

The contract will vary depending on the nature of your self employment work agreement and industry, but should cover elements such as:

  • Project details: This covers information such as the project duration, timeline and scope of work.
  • Communication protocols
  • Payment details
  • Costs that you've agreed to cover
  • Non-disclosure clauses
  • Non-compete clauses
  • Dispute clauses
  • Terms for contract termination or modification

We've also linked up to a few subcontractor agreement templates that you can use or adapt as a general contractor:

Avoid micromanaging:

In a HBR article, Emergent Research founding partner Steve King and author Dan Pink share an important tip: it's important to give your subcontractors and independent contractors freedom. King states: "You shouldn’t have to manage the work product of a contractor. If you are, find another one."

Allow them flexibility when it comes to their schedules, and give them space to complete their work on an as needed basis.

Offer feedback

Providing feedback doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming.

In many industries, it can be as simple as conducting a brief review after a project to run through what went well and what didn't, or sending through an email with a few bullet points on areas of improvement.

There is a good guy on giving feedback to self employed contractors in this HBR article.

Subcontracting and Taxes

Subcontracting can have tax implications in the United Kingdom, both for the contractor and the subcontractor. It's essential for businesses involved in subcontracting arrangements to be aware of the tax considerations. Below are key points related to subcontracting and taxes in the UK:

Value Added Tax (VAT):

  • Main Contractor: The main contractor is usually responsible for charging VAT on the services they provide to the client. If they subcontract part of the work to a subcontractor, the main contractor typically accounts for VAT on the full value of the services provided to the client.
  • Subcontractor: Subcontractors, if registered for VAT, will charge VAT on their services to the main contractor. The main contractor can usually recover this VAT as input tax, subject to the usual rules.

Construction Industry Scheme (CIS):

  • Main Contractor: Under the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS), main contractors are required to deduct tax (CIS deductions) from payments made to subcontractors. The rate of deduction depends on the subcontractor's registration status with HMRC.
  • Subcontractor: Subcontractors need to register with the CIS and provide their UTR (Unique Taxpayer Reference) to the main contractor. This ensures that the correct amount of tax is deducted.

Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions (NICs):

  • Subcontractor: Subcontractors are typically considered self-employed, and they are responsible for their own income tax and National Insurance contributions. However, if they operate through a company, different tax rules may apply.
  • Main Contractor: When paying subcontractors, the main contractor must verify their employment status for tax purposes and apply the appropriate tax treatment. This is especially important to determine whether the subcontractor should be treated as self-employed or as an employee.

Corporation Tax (for Subcontractors operating as Companies):

  • Subcontractor (Company): If a subcontractor operates as a limited company, they are subject to corporation tax on their profits. They must file annual corporation tax returns with HMRC.
  • Main Contractor: Main contractors need to be aware of the subcontractor's corporate status, especially when engaging with companies. Payments made to subcontractors that are companies may be subject to withholding tax in certain circumstances.

Record Keeping:

  • Both Main Contractor and Subcontractor: It is crucial for both the main contractor and subcontractor to maintain accurate and complete records of all financial transactions, invoices, and relevant documentation. This is essential for tax compliance and may be required in case of tax audits.

IR35 (Off-Payroll Working Rules):

  • Main Contractor: The IR35 legislations are designed to ensure that individuals working through intermediaries, such as personal service companies, are subject to the correct tax and National Insurance contributions. Main contractors should be aware of the IR35 status of subcontractors to determine the tax treatment of payments.

It is advisable for businesses engaged in subcontracting to seek professional advice from contractor accountants to ensure compliance with the latest tax regulations and to address specific circumstances. Tax rules are subject to change, and staying informed is crucial for maintaining tax compliance in subcontracting relationships.

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