Is It Ethical to Automate Your Job Without Telling Anyone?

When a company figures out how to automate a core process, executives and stockholders cheer. Money has been saved! The business has become more efficient! The future looks bright!

But when a tech pro figures out how to automate a substantial chunk of their job, they often live in fear. What if their boss thinks they’re no longer useful? What if they’re terminated, and replaced by a cheaper someone whose only job is to click a few buttons?

That conundrum is the focus of a new article in The Atlantic, which cites two prominent cases of tech pros automating their workflows. Both of the tech pros in question posted anonymously on Reddit and Workplace Stack Exchange, making verification difficult— but the stories are very similar. In simplest terms, these workers figured out that the bulk of their jobs could be handled via some simple scripts; after implementing their solutions, they ended up working only a few minutes per week, if that.

Sounds pretty good, right? Not so fast. As one of these two anonymous automators wrote on Workplace Stack Exchange: “Now the problem is, do I tell [my boss]? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me.” S/he even inserted a few bugs on occasion “to make [the result] look like it’s been generated by a human.”

Let’s leave aside the deliberate insertion of bugs into otherwise clean product, which everyone can pretty much agree is a huge no-no (it’s not just deceitful; you’re also complicating the lives of other workers downstream of you). If you complete the tasks you’re assigned, but don’t need to work very much (or at all) to do so, are you cheating your employer? If you’re not paid on a per-hour basis, do you still “owe” your employer 40 hours per week (or 60 hours, or whatever) in front of a screen?

Some would argue that a company ultimately cares only about results, and that as long as you deliver, the rest shouldn’t matter. But there’s a big counter-argument, and it goes something like this: At a certain point, unannounced automation may cross a line into deception. Maybe it involves racking up unearned PTO days, or taking benefits even though you’re technically not working enough hours; maybe it’s something as simple as lying when your boss asks you what you’re working on that day.

The reporter for The Atlantic, Brian Merchant, spoke to some other tech professionals who had largely automated their positions. One feared that his employer would “claim the [automation] IP as its own and refuse to compensate him,” while another “once inadvertently automated an entire department into redundancy.” This kind of dread can prevent people from speaking out about their innovations.

But here’s the thing: No good company would cut an employee who showed creativity and initiative in making things more efficient. Indeed, they might even promote such an employee, giving them higher-level tasks to handle. And if the company does decide to make the automator’s role redundant—well, tech unemployment is low at the moment, and lots of companies will snatch up someone with skills.

For tech pros whose jobs are becoming rapidly more automated (either because of other folks’ software, or because of code they’re writing themselves), it will pay off long-term to keep learning new skills. That will keep you relevant in the market. Maintaining your connections and soft skills is also vital to continued employment.

Tech pros are well aware of the potential threat posed by automation. However, some analyst firms don’t think A.I. and automated platforms will lead to a high degree of job destruction in the years ahead. “Workers of the future will spend more time on activities that machines are less capable of, such as managing people, applying expertise, and communicating with others,” read a report from McKinsey Global Institute. “The skills and capabilities required will also shift, requiring more social and emotional skills and more advanced cognitive capabilities, such as logical reasoning and creativity.”

That just emphasizes the need to keep one’s skills sharp. If you do automate your job, speaking out about it—and using it as leverage for a promotion or more interesting work—might be your best move.

13 Responses to “Is It Ethical to Automate Your Job Without Telling Anyone?”

  1. This is interesting and it sort of happened to me. I created a very complex Excel xlsm to automate my job. Not only did I loose that part of my job to the program but now I have been promoted to business technology developer and can proudly say I am now fluent in Full stack coding in many many object orientated languages. Hoorah for telling my boss about it!!

  2. This article is a bit naive. Before robotic process automation was popular, I automatted a big task that involved 5-8 people. My reward was almost being transfered into a boring help desk position when the company decided to automate without me. Companies are not loyal to even their innovative employees.

    • Totally agree. I think that we’re less “employees” as we are servers. As in the company/employee relationship is more client/server. That being said why not? The typical company would have no qualms about reducing expenses via automation. The argument about plenty of jobs??? What does have to do with this? Companies reap the benefits of their automation. Coders shouldn’t? Tell them to automate and move to a different company? Perhaps coders should consider unionizing. If a company can change its employees to “resources” perhaps those resources should change too.

  3. “But here’s the thing: No good company would cut an employee who showed creativity and initiative in making things more efficient.”

    But here’s another thing: there are a lot of no good companies and bosses out there who ignorantly will cut such a person.

    “And if the company does decide to make the automator’s role redundant—well, tech unemployment is low at the moment, and lots of companies will snatch up someone with skills.”

    So this is saying to go ahead and take the risk because – well, it doesn’t matter if your reward for doing a good job is an unemployed job search because, hey: you can always find another job. Way to skyrocket my motivation and outlook on life. Not.

    A technology professional is always looking for ways to automate things, including their job. That’s what we do. But daring to switch the emphasis from “technology” to “professional” for a moment: that means they can now go beyond the visible pigeonhole of their “job” (that their tunnel vision manager and others in company often see) and start working on issues and ideas that go deeper and can have an even greater positive impact on their employer. That’s what a professional does.

    To think that you have only one job and once you’ve automated it you’re “done” is not professional. But to risk say that you “automated your job” to others (who frequently have that pigeonholed tunnel vision of what you do) won’t do you any favors – nor will it ultimately do any favors for the company.

    The best way to make them realize that you are an employee who “shows creativity and initiative in making things more efficient” is by actually doing exactly that for them. But you won’t be able to do that if you’re not working for them – or if doing the non-automated version of your job already takes up all of your time every week.

  4. Glenn Chamuel

    In the mid-1990’s I automated my accounting/finance job to where I only needed to work one hour per day. My bosses didn’t fully believe me. The company was in distress at the time, so they didn’t want to look into it. I used that extra time to begin consulting for other companies in technical areas… until one offered me a job for almost double what I was currently making. Upon leaving, I spent half an hour training a co-worker to take over my responsibilities. Now, 20 years later, I consult to Fortune 500 companies in ‘financial and business transformation’ … redesigning their people, processes and technologies for optimal efficiency and to discover and take advantage of strategic opportunities.

  5. David Sutton

    Here’s the thing. When we entered the technical field it was because of a love for the technology and the ability to learn and grow. When we automate a portion of our position or duties it opens us up for additional cycles to work on the next implementation and then the next. Not to automate all our work so we can slack and let our skills atrophy. Additionally we need to understand that when you use our employers tools to develop efficiencies the IP is theirs, that is why they employed us. The ever growing increase of a lack of work ethic and integrity is part of why so many of our jobs and resources and being shifted over seas.

  6. I agree with quite a lot of this. Companies though are moving to the new paradigm for (human) resources, “Just in time”. They can do this by taking advantage of your love of technology. The reward for good work is more work. The reward for selling a successful company is beachfront property.

  7. ed jones

    The ethical thing in this situation would be for the company to give the developer a recurring revenue stream in exchange for developing the automation. The developer could build a very nice income by automating other aspects of the company.

    One could claim that the time the developer no longer spends doing the job manually is that recurring revenue stream and they could use that time to learn new technologies or work side gigs.

    A variation on original question is: is it ethical for developer to automate other people’s jobs, putting them out of work? To which, I say yes. Private industry is full of BS jobs that have no reason to exist other than to fill up an org chart. Eliminating those BS jobs should be a significant goal of any developer in a company.

  8. Andrew N

    Those guys are geniuses for automating their jobs. They should reap all the benefits they can get from it, even if it means omitting the fact that a computer is working on their tasks! After all, there are no “good companies” that would put loyalty ahead of profit.

  9. G. Martin

    I automated my work flow. The company I was working for used it as justification for not giving me a raise, you know, since my job was now less difficult. Only took 3 weeks to land a better paying gig

  10. “No good company would cut an employee who showed creativity and initiative in making things more efficient.”

    Now that’s a joke. Your first level manager barely understands what you do, even if you write detailed weekly status reports. Your second level manager probably has no clue at all what you do.

    I’ve been offered a buyout immediately after I completed a design that the testing manager (who actually did have a clue) said was the best software design he had ever seen at the company. The guy they didn’t make an offer to? He and the manager had the same favorite baseball team.
    I’ve been offered a buyout after fully automating document generation that saved hundreds of hours of manual editing, and was in the process of integrating design and testing tools that would have enabled testers to easily test to requirements, instead of having to manually create their test sets.

    Being good doesn’t guarantee you anything.

    But I automate because I’m lazy and hate repetitive tasks. My approach is that you do something once. If you have to do it again, you automate. You should never have to do it the third time. Sitting on my rear end after automating something would wind up with me bored out of my skull.

  11. Dean Weller

    Already there and did basically the same thing. The difference is I told my employer what I was doing and the underlying reason. I told the director that I have the goal of completing grad school. When I’m gone you can hire a high school student to update the necessary files and hit the button for minimum wage. The director has been talking me up to the VPs above him as an “untapped and underutilized resource”. I think the last thing he said was that I could benefit by interacting with management more. Probably true but I’m probably too big of a threat to some of those guys. I figure I finish grad school and find a company that views my abilities as a resource. I’ll make those above and around me look like gods.