Guy automated his job, unethical to not tell employer?

Hey monkeys,

I read this article on Yahoo Finance and was curious of what the WSO community's opinions on this matter are.

Basically, a man created a program to do his job for him; what was once a full-time job for him became a 2-hour per week job and he spends his free time with his son -- oh, and his boss doesn't know. He is afraid if he tells his boss, he will be fired and his program will replace him.

So the question this unknown man went public with was...

"Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I've automated my job?

My Opinion

I personally think in terms of ethics -- yes, it is unethical to not tell your employer; company resources (money) are basically just being given away. In terms of morals, he isn't doing anything wrong; the job is getting done, just in an easier and faster way for him.

If a program can be written to do his job for him, it must be a very simple/repetitive job. He could probably go on and get a better/more fulfilling job.

What do you guys think?

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Comments (54)

Jul 5, 2017

He must have a contract or a specific duty to complete the job. The company is paying for him to do the job. It's similar to a person having another person complete their homework. The assignment still gets done, just in an easier way for him.
It's smart, but, in my opinion, it is also unethical.

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Jul 5, 2017

Doesn't seem at all like having another person complete your homework for you. Not that I buy the story 100%, but for sake of argument this hypothetical person used his intelligence and resourcefulness to complete what would have to be a mind-bogglingly dull, repetitive, boring job quicker than budgeted (Coders HATE Him!). In my mind, no different than using well-known excel shortcuts or writing a macro to take care of the more mindless aspects of spreadsheet jockeying.

Taking it a step further, I would automate this job, and then start my job search for comparable roles with three or four other companies, get hired, rinse and repeat.

As long as the duties are performed adequately, I see no issue.

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Jul 5, 2017

Perhaps I'm naive, but if the guy has concerns that he will be fired, doesn't that mean that he knows that he did something wrong even if the job got done?

If I was paying a person to do a job, I'd want them to do it themselves. At the same time, I don't know what job this guy has.

Jul 11, 2017
Kamchowder:

He must have a contract or a specific duty to complete the job. The company is paying for him to do the job. It's similar to a person having another person complete their homework. The assignment still gets done, just in an easier way for him.
It's smart, but, in my opinion, it is also unethical.

Interesting point. If the job is contract labor then it's not unethical at all as the program is his program, and he is being paid to accomplish a certain task. If the guy is a company employee then I think it's unethical because the program doesn't technically belong to him.

Jul 5, 2017

Yeah, I agree with you there because if the guy owned the program he could use it. I was writing under the assumption that the guy was a company employee.

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Jul 5, 2017

The only unethical thing here is that he didn't report it and save the company money. If this guy was smart, he'd quit this sweatshop and become an entrepreneur with his skills.

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Jul 5, 2017

absolutely unethical. the summary post said it best:

"You spend 1-2 hours per week working from home (to be with your son), but get paid for 40
You wrote the program 6 months ago but haven't told your employer yet
Every week or so you lie about what you completed
You deliberately inserted bugs into your program to aid in your deception
You are continuing to cause the analysts who create the spreadsheets to spend a fair bit of time verifying your work
You admit that "it doesn't feel like I'm doing the right thing"

if he's an hourly worker and gets caught falsifying his timesheet, he could get into legal trouble, there are all sorts of worker's comp laws that make this kinda shit actually matter. if he's an exempt employee however and not paid hourly, what I'd do is tell my boss "hey, I found some shortcuts that could save time to get me to work on other projects," that kinda mindset will lead to promotions and probably more fulfilling work.

by the way, what kinda lesson is that teaching his son? I'd want my kid to witness me actually working instead of resting on my laurels. ingenuity is one thing, deceit is another.

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Jul 5, 2017

I bet you'd follow your leader into a pit full of tarantulas if he asked you to rather than grab a flamethrower and fry those bitches, just to say you did your job.

I'm confused about what he's being deceitful about. The takeaway for his son is "don't be a dumbass following the crowd; think your way through problems and you can do whatever you want."

"Hard working people" aren't the ones who get to buy $20mm condos in NYC and drive Ferraris with a pointy-nippled girl in the passenger seat. It's the spiteful nerd who invents Facebook, the random Chinese guy who first figured out a bitcoin farm could be profitable, the guy smoking a joint who decided to make a serious business porn site with ads in Time Square - THEY become rich. This guy is merely an apprentice in that game.

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Jul 5, 2017

first, I'm my own boss.

second, even SEALs question their bosses, I'm not saying you should never question authority, but I am saying don't go behind someone's back when they have your trust. that's deceitful. doing something and then taking steps to cover your tracks is deceitful.

I see what you're getting at with the last point, but this isn't someone like that. this guy wants to automate his job so he can be lazy and only work 2 hours a week. a real go getter would start a company, sell this program to the company and capitalize on his knowledge.

respectfully disagree dude.

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Jul 5, 2017

The point flew over your head completely. This isn't about working smarter or doing a service for society, it's about being a rational economic agent. The company paid for a service and that's what they get. This isn't the military - there's no "duty" or "honor" or even "authority" to question here. It's simply "should I be a dunce because the rules say so" versus "should I capitalize on my time." The answer to the latter is always a resounding yes. If he gets caught and faces legal trouble, then that's on him and that's up to the company to implement.

If he wants to be lazy or hang out with his kid all the time, and the price of doing that is to write some code and tell a company he's busy, then that's the price he should pay for that. The only time someone overpays for something (in the case of the company) is when they're not smart enough to figure out that they can get more. There's no Business Bible and Ten Commandments or even a Business Constitution or Business Bill of Rights or Business Guidebook that states "thou shalt be a drone despite any greater ability he has, for thou should honor the firm always!!1! At least not as far as I know.

But yeah man. Respectfully disagree. I, too, hate tarantulas.

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Jul 8, 2017

he gets paid to produce results. not sit at a desk 40 days a week

Best Response
Jul 5, 2017

Fuck that, it isn't unethical. The job the guy was hired for came with a set of job duties, if the duties are getting done the company is receiving the value they agreed to pay for. It isn't his fault that the company is so narrow minded to not check in with the guy on a regular basis to ensure they are getting the most value out of him that is possible. If his boss is satisfied with the volume and quality of his work it doesn't matter if he spends 80 hours a week doing it or 0. The phrase is work SMARTER not HARDER seems to be completely lost here where people brag about how many 100 hour weeks they have done.

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    • 25
Jul 5, 2017

The cynic in me agrees with this.

Jul 5, 2017

On the motherfucking money. People want to "work for the firm", "have integrity", "be honest", they can do that. But where is my extra 100% pay when I spend 80 hours at the office instead of the 40 it says in my agreement? They made an agreement that says certain work has to be accomplished, and that's what they get. If they want to fire someone for doing it more efficiently, they can. But what they've really done is fire someone who could have done more for them if they had better management. There's a price to pay for inefficiency, and that company is paying it.

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Jul 5, 2017

agreed!

Jul 6, 2017

How can you INNOVATE the ECOSYSTEM with HARD WORK in an OFFICE? You have to be drinking COCONUT WATER while sitting in a BEAN BAG chair in SILICON VALLEY!

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Jul 6, 2017

Nailed it. You're paid to produce a work product. If that work product is satisfactory, that's really the end of discussion.

Jul 11, 2017

I love you right now @heister. Couldn't agree more.

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Jul 5, 2017

It is somewhere in between. The guy is getting his Shit done. That being said he probably won't have a job there for long as soon as somebody goes and writes and article about it online. I think that it shows that the company he works for has a complete lack of control and does not recognize their own talent. They clearly have not added any responsibilities to his plate and are not paying any attention. That being said, he did not ask for more responsibility. If he is that good that he has it programmed he could have easily gotten more tasks to accomplish and probably boosted his pay.

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Jul 6, 2017

Not really. I don't think his company would be the type that rewards initiative.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."

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Jul 6, 2017

Reminds me of my old friend from high-school whose dad was quite intelligent, but had never held a stable job in his life (and who i'm assuming smoked a lot of weed). Anyway, he got a job with the city doing basic maintenance on parking meters, and he was paid per meter serviced. He actually invented a contraption that automated the whole process, and was effectively earning $100 per hour, 36 hours per week. Unlike the story in the OP, he ran at full capacity and quickly had no more work.

In an unrelated story, he lost another job telling a feminist joke to his female boss. Overall, amazing guy.

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Jul 6, 2017

Like what others said "Work smarter not harder" he's doing his job but in a different way, he is not slacking or doing anything wrong. Even if he did came out and said he invented this type of software dont you think they will probably give him a 5k bonus and just fire him and everyone in that division and implement a couple of techies with the software he created.

...

Jul 6, 2017

Imho I think he is a genius :) nobody specified, that he had to do the work himself, just to get the work done. @ Vendos we had a programmer, who did something similar, and it turned out great, hence the guy he used to do his job, was were good and fast.

Jul 6, 2017

Very interesting argument, you can play it both ways. In one sense, it's basic transitive property (If A=B and B=C, then A=C). If he created the program, and the program does the work, technically he is doing the work and fulfilling his job duties. And like a couple people stated, they agreed upon a work schedule and list of duties, so there should be nothing wrong in doing it more efficiently. I guess the unethical part is not informing his boss, because in reality, there's a better way for him to be using his time and utilizing company resources.

Jul 6, 2017

Lmao no this isn't unethical in the least. He's working smart instead of working hard. What the guys on the other side of the argument don't seem to understand is that the company is not paying for the hours, they are paying for the work. If the work is completed within the designated timeframe, I fail to see the issue. He's just working effectively and good luck to him; all he needs to do now is go out and do this with another couple companies and just rake in the cash.

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Jul 6, 2017

As soon as his employer finds out hes just going to buy the automating system

Jul 6, 2017

Not that this is my personal opinion, but just to play devil's advocate to the majority of those posting in this thread:

Many of you insinuate that it's unethical for this employee to conceal some material aspect of how he performs his job from his bosses.

I ask you: is it unethical when companies realize that workers like this guy can be replaced by a computer program and a tech support guy in New Delhi/Mumbai, and they are summarily let go en masse? If so, please explain to me the value of a strict, self-restrictive ethical framework for the employee we're discussing.

I think it's easy for people on this forum to forget that most workers in this country aren't "high flying" types, nor are their managers/leadership. They're people who come in and clock in/out after a standard day's work. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and though the lack of inspiration that seems part and parcel of this arrangement would infuriate me personally, it is apparently what is preferable for the vast majority of people.

In such an arrangement, what moral or ethical obligation does the employee have to help his bosses help themselves? It wasn't on their bidding that he set about automating himself, and it could be argued that there is significant personal risk attached to divulging the solution he developed. Some of you have implied that if he just told his bosses, he could do more fulfilling work instead - not necessarily so. There are a large number of companies that don't have enough deal flow to put a guy like this anywhere else, and so if they don't want to pay him for being home with his son, they'll just phase him out.

Jul 5, 2017

what I find unethical is not having a machine do his job, it's the deceitfulness of it. also, all of this depends on how the guy is paid: hourly or on a project basis. if hourly, then absolutely it's unethical, because he's not working the hours for which he's getting paid. if by project, then that's murkier.

moreover, what struck me as unethical was not the design of a program to automate his job, but it was the deliberate insertion of bugs to make it appear as though it's him and not a machine, lowering the chances of him "getting caught." it's deceit, not automation that's unethical in this situation.

I'd be elated as a boss if someone found out a way to condense a 10 person team's 40 hour workweeks into 2 hours done by one guy, that's wonderful.

to the question about computer programs & indian tech support killing jobs, that's a different argument in my opinion. you're bringing up the morality of automation and outsourcing. maybe I'm alone here, but I saw the question as "is this guy's automation of his job and the subsequent cover up unethical?" not just the automation.

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Jul 6, 2017

Thanks for engaging, @thebrofessor

While I agree with you that from a purely theoretical standpoint deception is unethical, I think we have to consider this case in the context of reality, not theory. The question isn't so much whether deceit is unethical on face - I'd agree that it is. Nor is it really a legalistic question - from that standpoint, I'm sure that regardless of this hourly/non-hourly distinction, there is a clause in the employee's contract entitling the company to all IP that he or she produces in the course of his/her job, including this program. Both of these frameworks of analysis lend themselves to your position.

My question is, what is the value (to the employee) of adhering to a self-restrictive ethical framework in a world that, arguably, applies no such ethic to its own behavior? I think it is fair to ask whether you are really obligated in some actionable way to a going concern that, if operating correctly, would probably do best to appropriate your technology and use it as the basis for letting you and your colleagues go.

I think what this really boils down to is: if you, @thebrofessor invented a replacement for yourself that you knew would be good for the business that employed you, but divulging it would likely result in significant personal harm to you, would you divulge it? If so, why? And would you be willing to accept the harms if they materialized?

If you didn't divulge it, would you set the program aside so as not to derive some "deceptive" benefit from it yourself?

What if, instead of a computer program, we were talking about a piece of capital equipment in a poorly regulated labor market? Say, a Nigerian miner that discovered a proprietary tool that would make him more efficient, but entail a greater risk of malfunction and physical harm? Would this change the calculus about whether he is ethically/morally obligated to deliver such a tool to his employer, and why?

Jul 5, 2017

wonderful points, we're getting deep here. I'm reading your first 2 paragraphs as rhetorical, if they need a response, lemme know.

onto the question of a robrofessor...I think there's a 3rd outcome that you're overlooking which is where my brain immediately went: if I can automate some of my tasks leading me to focus on those which are not currently able to be automated well, would I divulge that to my partners? ABSOLUTELY! a great example for argument's sake is portfolio management. if we had tools that could simply offload the management of portfolios, natural language processing to read all research, write all of our content, etc., that'd be a tremendous time saver. I imagine it might lead to margin compression, but with that free time we can go and grow our revenues to offset. so on the one hand, if I did nothing after the automation was inserted, I would suffer. but in reality (again, not in theory), I wouldn't do nothing, I'd be making trades. I'd trade tasks which are now automated for two things: more free time or more time spent on other tasks (thereby increasing productivity, same hours doing more work).

the nigerian example is an interesting one. on the one hand, productivity could go up, but on the other hand, physical harm and malfunction may offset those productivity gains with lost time spent from injuries to workers, time repairing the machine, etc. I imagine that something like this would go the way of McCormick's reaper: where initially it's dangerous because the kinks haven't been worked out, but over time it improves. However, the nature of the labor market and the likely imbalance between power of the workers in a place like nigeria makes me think ethics will probably change. if you're under a warlord, it's about survival, not a moral compass, and you'd probably be willing to do whatever it takes to better your and your family's situation. this kinda addresses your comment about employees self restricting themselves in an unethical environment.

the way I view ethics is the standards guiding your behavior, they're fluid, not rigid. for example, I may decide to be dishonest in a situation that is life or death, if honesty leads to death. however, if given lesser stakes with the same dilemma, I would likely choose honesty. there's a spectrum here, and it's not black and white.

finally, I think why I approached this differently is the very nature of the question (automation and self preservation). I look at automation as an inevitability of most things, and it's up to each of us to immunize ourselves as best we can from its effects. but, that's a choice I've made, doesn't mean everyone has to do that. I see the point you're making with a self restrictive ethical framework, and possibly this worker, believing he's operating in an unethical environment, is simply making the most of his situation. perhaps his data company is the equivalent of the Gulag, and he's better off keeping his mouth shut.

ethics are always an interesting topic, particularly because most situations are different

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Jul 6, 2017

Thanks @thebrofessor for the stimulating discussion.

I think we're on the same page here. To drop the devil's advocacy, I am with you. People can and should think about how to automate what they and their colleagues do - automation is the natural tendency of economic history, and one of the primary drivers of invention. I myself have automated parts of my job because it is a huge value-add.

Then again, you and I work in places where (I am willing to assume) a few conditions make this value-add personally beneficial to us:

  1. We work with people that view us as teammates and colleagues, and not as fungible labor resources.
  2. We work at companies who have a cap on headcount, but not on deal flow - and so an hour freed up by innovation can be spent more wisely on something else that benefits the organization.

I would, however, posit that a lot of people's work environments don't resemble this situation. Many employees, especially outside the front office, are viewed as cost centers. From management's perspective, there's nothing personal about hiring and firing these middle and back office employees as budgetary needs dictate. And for those enterprising employees that can bring something to the table, like an automated solution, there's not necessarily a strong sense among the rank and file that their higher ups will act in good faith and reward them for the contribution.

To your point about situational ethics (which I agree with), this means, at least to me, that people in such a situation ought not be judged harshly for withholding what could be construed as the engine of their demise. Nor should they be judged for deriving some benefit from their ingenuity despite not feeling that they are able to share it with their employer. So long as they don't leave the organization worse off for their efforts, they should be allowed to do what they want.

Unfortunately, we are transitioning from a world of widget-makers to a world of widget-maker-managers, and I think there are a lot of widget makers that will be left behind as these changes unfold. I can't fault widget makers who have no clear exit sign from doing their best on a table that is justifiably slanted against them. Is their behavior right in some strong ethical sense? No. Would I protest their employer if they fired the employee after discovering what they had done? No. Then again, would I get on this worker's case about it if they were my friend? Also, no.

Jul 9, 2017
Fugue:

My question is, what is the value (to the employee) of adhering to a self-restrictive ethical framework in a world that, arguably, applies no such ethic to its own behavior?

This.

Jul 6, 2017

He should A) Not tell his employer. B) QUIT. C) Sell his program to his employer or create his own company doing the same thing just with 0 employees.

Jul 6, 2017

My question is why everyone is assuming this anonymous person is a guy? There is no indication anywhere of this person's gender.

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Jul 5, 2017

pronouns in the article brah

Jul 6, 2017

The person is an anonymous poster. The article made the perhaps incorrect assumption.

Edit:
Here is the stackexchange post. https://workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/9369...
Where is there any indication that this person is male?

Jul 5, 2017

you're correct, but that's also not relevant to the discussion. I wouldn't change my assessment of how ethical this is based on their sex and I doubt anyone else would

Jul 6, 2017

I would argue it might change the tone of people's responses though. If the poster was perceived or known to be female, people might be more willing to argue that this deception is more ethical because of preconceived notions about gender and childcare.

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Jul 5, 2017

fair point, but knowing the moral compass of WSO, I wouldn't be so optimistic

Jul 6, 2017

.

Jul 6, 2017

1) IT appears to be a very male dominated industry 2) Given no other information, if we are empathizing with someone whose gender is unknown, it feels natural to project my own gender onto them (keeping in mind WSO is majority male).

Jul 6, 2017

This goes to show that getting paid based on time worked is inefficient.

Jul 7, 2017

If this is a real story/situation, here are my two cents: all white collar workers are paid for their knowledge. These people hired him to use his brain to do a job - paying him the market-bearing rate to solve a problem. He used the initiative for which they hired him to streamline his responsibilities. As far as I am concerned, as long as he delivers on what they hired him to do, regardless how he is doing it (as long as it's legal), he is doing nothing wrong and he owes nothing to no one. The program he wrote is his proprietary IP and he doesn't need to share with anyone.

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Jul 8, 2017

Depending on what it is, automating a process that your employer is currently paying people to do could be quite valuable to the company.

Jul 9, 2017

Make no mistake, his employer would feel cheated and undoubtedly fire him. Is it logical? No, but people are wired to act against their interests if it punishes 'cheating' behavior. His employer would also have no qualms about firing him and his peers the second they had a cheaper alternative. I'd 1) try to hold down multiple jobs doing the same thing (working remotely) and 2) go to school or move into a different line of work that isn't obsolete.

Jul 10, 2017

Good grief, how are some of you in the finance industry? this is definitely unethical.

The programmer's dolphin sensors are clearly going defcon 4 -
1. He/she is questioning his/her actions.
2. The person is clearly going cloak and dagger against his/her employer.
3. Most unethical actions are rationalized through self-deception.

what a poor sod. nevertheless, it isn't exactly ultimate whether the company would fire him/her or not. He/she is clearly rationalizing his deception.

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Jul 5, 2017

No, these are based on a personal moral code not a societal moral code which quite frankly is bullshit anyway. When it comes to objectively analyzing your interaction with a company it is either legal or illegal. Morality comes down to a personal preference.

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Jul 10, 2017

I respectfully don't know what point you're trying to make here. How exactly are you defending someone that's deliberately covering their tracks and deceiving his/her employer? No matter how much value is added through results, it should be done with integrity. What he/she is doing is unethical. What more is there to discuss?

Jul 5, 2017

As I have said multiple times, the company hired him to do a set of jobs. If he is meeting the volume and quality standards that his boss approves of then there is nothing here.

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Jul 11, 2017

I don't think automating his job is unethical per se, I do think that inserting bugs to cover it up is.

There is also another ethical dimension, which is more subjective. I really think this guy should find something else to do. Whatever job he has is likely a junior level role at a large company with a narrowly defined scope. Thus the compensation is probably low and the duties simple, which is why it was so ripe for automation.Two hours of work or no, making $60k/yr for the rest of his life likely isn't the best use of his abilities.

I understand wanting to spend time with his kid, but I think at some level he also has an obligation to use his abilities to build the best life for his kid as possible. Doesn't mean he should be working 80 hours a week, but maybe he should be working in a remote coding job working 35 hours a week and making 50% more money. I'm loathe to tell a guy he should be working more and spending less time with his family, but I think there is a balance to be found between working two hours a week automating an entry-level job and working 80 hours a week as a banker or consultant.

    • 1
Jul 11, 2017

Let's just ignore the ethics for sec....
It is a poor financial decision. Once he locks the code down/places a self destruct inside, he should be actively looking for ways to leverage this tool within and outside the company. I actually blame management for this conundrum. His manager doesn't know enough about the job function to try automating it, and the company culture doesn't encourage innovation.

Jul 14, 2017
Jul 31, 2017
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Jul 31, 2017