The crimes of cowboy builders are well publicised, but a study from AXA finds the rogue traders may well be out-numbered by rogue customers. Customers having a cavalier attitude towards tradesmen’s safety and wellbeing is common, as are attempts to belittle their expertise, but the worst behaviour would be considered serious workplace harassment in any other context.

Eight in ten tradesmen told the survey they regularly encounter customers who attempt to knock down the agreed fee or avoid paying them on various pretexts – pushing back payment deadlines or disputing the fee only once work is complete.

Other types of behaviour are self-defeating, as clients unwittingly hinder work or prevent the tradesman from carrying it out properly. The most common ways customers undermine a building project, as voted by tradespeople, are:

  1. Insisting on cheap or unsuitable materials
  2. Not providing clear job specs (contrary to myth, many tradesmen prefer a written agreement)
  3. Ignoring their advice
  4. Asking them to do tasks they aren’t qualified for
  5. Hanging around while they try to work

Another bugbear is having to work around animals that are not properly under control: a third of tradespeople have been attacked by a home-owner’s beloved pet: (“My mate told me the dog was coming, but I thought he was joking and carried on painting the window frame. It sunk its teeth in my leg: I got up the ladder and was trapped on the roof”.)

Unsanitary working conditions were the third biggest complaint, with 27 per cent of tradesmen saying they’ve had to walk off a job after being asked to work amidst dog mess, maggot-infested rubbish or flea infestations: “When you can’t see the floor through the rubbish and dog dirt, it’s time to walk away”.

Meanwhile, 26 per cent of tradespeople say they have had a customer flirt or attempt to seduce them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Far from finding these situations comic, tradespeople often feel demeaned or threatened by this behaviour:
“I once worked on a contract for a very well-known company: female staff would proposition, make sexually suggestive remarks or even make uninvited physical contact”, said a male builder.

A female painter and decorator said: “When you arrive, you greet the customer and they sometimes don’t even reply, others try and make sexist jokes or flirt with me.”

“A married woman flashed at me. I’m a happily married man and just tried to pretend it hadn’t happened”, said a male joiner.
Becoming embroiled in people’s family lives is another danger, as a quarter of tradesmen say they have stood by while a major domestic argument went on. Others report attacks by irate neighbours (“I was rewiring a flat and a neighbour pulled a knife on me thinking I was cutting off his electricity!”). Tradesmen have even reported being left with a house full of children while the mum went to the shops.
“We live in a society which tends to look down on skilled manual work in general, often undervaluing the knowledge, judgement and craftsmanship it involves,” says Gareth Howell, managing director of leading trades insurer AXA. “It’s hard to imagine someone in a white-collar role encountering such high levels of harassment or casual disrespect. People are quite happy to argue a builder’s fee down once he’s finished work, but would they do the same to a dentist, solicitor or architect?”

“Tradespeople are the best insured small businesses in the UK and follow health and safety regulations designed to protect customers. But it cuts both ways, householders have a duty of care towards people working in their home too: at the most basic level, provide a clean work space, and ensure animals and children are well out of the way.”