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Is it ethical for workers to secretly automate their own job?

A great deal is being written and discussed about the opportunities for automation to replace individual jobs. But the discussion is usually from the perspective of whether workers should fear being replaced by their employers with automation software programs.

Now, an entirely different discussion on automation is emerging – whether workers should have the right to automate part of their own job without being asked to do so by the employer.

To understand what is involved in this scenario, Information Management spoke with Julia Kanouse, chief executive officer at the Illinois Technology Association. Kanouse offered her thoughts on any potential ethical questions involved, and how a worker might make such an arrangement best work for all concerned.

Information Management: A recent forum on StackExchange posed the question of “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?” The question drew considerable interest, with varying opinions. What is your personal view on that question, and what is the view of the Illinois Technology Association?

Julia Kanouse: There’s a million ways to do one job, so why should it be considered unethical that an employee found a hyper-efficient way to do his or hers? If the work is getting done, and getting done well, it speaks to the proactiveness and ingenuity of the employee for finding a better way.

While I wouldn’t consider this a question of ethics, I would raise the issue of transparency and teamwork. If an employee automated his or her job and found a more efficient, better method for a task, why wouldn’t they want to share that with the company or other employees, so they too can be equally as effective?

IM: Do you know of reaction by employers to this issue, and is the overall action what you would expect it to be?

Kanouse: I imagine employers have swaying opinions on this issue. People operate using different management styles, some with the opinion of, “Get it done, do it well,” less concerned with exactly how the work gets done. There’s also the managers who care considerably about the steps taken in between.

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The right protocol for whether to “Automate and Tell” or not depends on the company’s culture. If it’s a teamwork-focused, collaborative company, automating a task and keeping it under wraps is different than a cubicle environment where people work in silos. You have to understand your company’s culture and manager’s style to know what the right thing to do is.

IM: What types of jobs are in a position to be able to automate some, most or all of the work expected by an employer?

Kanouse: Today’s voice assistants have the ability to automate mundane, admin-type tasks, such as making calendar appointments or getting someone on the phone. For most jobs, it’s small parts of the job that can take up time, which could go toward more valuable, strategic tasks. For other types of jobs where there is heavy data entry or repetitive tasks, today’s technology makes it increasingly easier to automate larger components of the job’s day-to-day duties.

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Julia Kanouse

IM: What are seen as the key benefits and disadvantages to such a move by workers?

Kanouse: Many workers are probably hesitant to share newly automated tasks out of fear of losing their job. If their work becomes automated, are they disposable? I hope that most decision-makers would appreciate the employee’s ability to think outside-the-box, and their role would evolve rather than disappear.

Similarly, the benefits are the ability to grow and evolve your role at the organization. If you are a person who doesn’t like spending time on administrative tasks, being transparent about what you’ve been able to automate will allow you to level-up and move on to more strategic projects.

IM: What are seen as the key benefits and disadvantages to such a move by employers?

Kanouse: There are obvious benefits of automation to employers, such as productivity and reduced costs; AI doesn’t take sick days or vacations. That said, automation is simply not applicable to every role. While many jobs have some tasks that are objective, there are lots of roles that aren’t - work that is strategy driven and differs case-by-case.

That type of thinking is something automation is simply not capable of, so employers still need people. Additionally, for consumer roles, there’s still a desire for human interaction – 70 percent of consumers prefer human interaction to bots - and by over-automating jobs, leaders can miss out on creating strong consumer relationships with their brands.

IM: How should employers and employees best establish open communication and guidance about rules governing automation of work processes by workers?

Kanouse: A culture around open communication is best initiated from the top-down. You can’t expect your employees to be transparent with leaders if they don’t feel it’s reciprocated. Leaning on HR technology, like pulse surveys, can help create better lines of communication. Managers should also be communicating with teams regularly so they know how work is getting done.

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