question mark in front of face
PHOTO: Anemone123

As automation technology and skills become more widely available, many employees will automate the bulk of their work. When they do, are they obligated to tell their employers?

A developer’s forum network found itself grappling with the question one day in 2017. StackExchange — a network of Q&A forums much like Reddit — received a post on its Workplace forum from a poster with the username Etherable.

As a programmer at a legacy organization, Etherable’s entire job was to carry out hours of complex data entry on an archaic platform — a task that generally falls below the responsibilities of a programmer. The process was so inefficient that Etherable found a way to automate the job, condensing an entire month’s worth of work into 10 minutes.

Concerned about losing their position because of their creation, Etherable spent months secretly running the reports automatically and inserting several bugs to make it appear as if a human completed it. Their ultimate question: Are my actions unethical?

Etherable’s post went viral and now has more than 400,000 views. It attracted serious attention for good reason: self-automated work is a newly possible phenomena for which there is no established etiquette. But I can’t help but feel like the question itself and most of the responses missed the point. Etherable’s ethics are not at the heart of this issue — their employer’s culture is.

Is Ethics the Real Question Here?

While the conversation surrounding the post centered on ethics, that debate seems like a diversion. What stood out to me was Etherable’s reaction to hide their automated tool — a move that says more about the employer than the employee. The organization clearly doesn’t promote a healthy culture around employee innovation. By debating ethics, we’re missing a major issue that all enterprises will have to reckon with.

Etherable’s case is drastic, but they’re not alone. Shadow IT pops up in all kinds of organizations, almost always because employees want to manage their workloads smarter. As employees get used to solving problems with tech outside of their work lives, they’re likely to bring the same solutions into the workplace if their employees don’t provide strong, work-sanctioned apps and solutions. From something seemingly harmless like using a non-sanctioned workflow tool to track project management to larger undertakings like coding a tool from scratch to do your job for you, these actions illustrate the spectrum of shadow IT that employees use to make themselves more productive.

The ideal response to an action like Etherable’s is to reward it and define security boundaries so the employee has the space to innovate without risking company data. And the innovating employee should trust they’ll receive such a response rather than fear for their livelihood. If they’ve automated their core responsibilities, encourage them to look for further process optimization opportunities, on their own team or others.

Is it problematic that Etherable inserted bugs into their work with the goal to deceive? Yes, I’d say that is unethical. But in a case where an employee feels so at risk after using technology in an innovative and resourceful way to create value for their company, the larger fault lies with their employer.

Related Article: Bringing Shadow IT Into the Light

Self-Automation May Put Your Company Culture to Test

Enterprise leaders should use this cautionary tale as an opportunity to consider their own stance on self-automation, and how they might react if Etherable were their employee. Your honest reaction says a lot about the health of your company culture when it comes to innovation.

The first warning sign for the employer’s lagging culture was that they hired a programmer for data entry tasks to begin with. Beyond adjusting their culture to welcome innovation, they clearly must also update their outdated IT system and look for other areas to optimize inefficient processes.

Any company would be lucky to have an Etherable on their team. An inclination to become more efficient is a great attribute to have in an employee. In a perfect world, the phenomenon of self-automation will become more common thanks to the availability of tools that enable employees to optimize their workloads.

When those innovative employees do emerge, organizations must be ready to encourage and empower workers so they know they can work toward self-automation and share their successes — without facing unjust consequences.

Related Article: Is Low-Code Technology Right for You?