What are the ethics of automating yourself out of a job?
“Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?”
The question was posted this week to The Workplace, a question-and-answer website about office etiquette and ethics. Responses quickly poured in, and before long, links to the question had spread to Hacker News and Reddit, where it generated thousands of additional comments.
“This question is a beautiful example of typical incentives workers feel and how screwed up they are,” one commenter wrote on Hacker News.
A much-discussed anxiety of work in the modern age is the potential for robots to take our jobs. Some tasks could clearly be done better by computers or machines than humans, and we’ve already seen factories across the world turn to automation to cut costs. But what happens when an individual programmer manages to automate themselves out of their own job?
The anonymous user who asked the question, calling themselves Etherable, explained they’d been working for a company for 18 months. They’d been hired as a programmer, but the job ultimately amounted to data entry.
“As you can guess, it is pretty much the most boring job ever,” Etherable wrote. “However, it’s a full time job with decent pay, and I work remotely so I can stay home with my son.”
After about a year on the job, they’d managed to automate the entire thing.
“I’ve basically figured out all the traps to the point where I’ve actually written a program which for the past 6 months has been just doing the whole thing for me,” they wrote in the post. “So what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes to clean the spreadsheet and run it through the program.”
The user went on to say they spend an hour or two on their job each week, even though they’re getting paid for full-time work. On one hand, they wrote, “it’s not like I’m cheating the company.” On the other, “it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
The responses to the question went both ways. Many focused on the fact that Etherable, as they wrote in the post, inserts “a few bugs here and there to make it look like [the report has] been generated by a human.” Many commenters who felt the automation itself was ethical believed the bug insertion was not, including the user who wrote the most upvoted response on The Workplace.
“You don’t sell time! You sell results! But producing sub-par results to conceal the amount of time you actually work is unethical!” wrote the very enthusiastic commenter.
“Despite what everyone says here, you do not sell 40 hours of data entry per week, you sell the result processing X spreadsheets,” they added.
Many commenters around the internet shared that view.
“The perfect employee,” wrote one user on Reddit. “He always does his work on time with few errors, and causes no problems or headaches. He could work harder, but he’s doing the job we need done. If you quit this job without something better lined up, you’re a moron.”
In the second-most-upvoted answer on The Workplace, another user came at it from a different angle, listing all the things they saw as unethical with Etherable’s situation:
- 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”
“Although the answer seems obvious to me,” that commenter added, “perhaps your personal ethics lead you to conclude that this is okay.”
Some commenters took the analysis even further. The user on Hacker News, quoted above, who said the question demonstrates worker incentives are “screwed up,” added the “butt-in-the-seat” culture is the real problem, and that Etherable’s dilemma is merely a symptom of that.
“If you’ve ever thought ‘I’m done for the day, but I’m going to hang out a little longer to leave at a more respectable time,’ then you’re feeling (and doing) the same kind of thing,” that commenter wrote.
Replies to that comment, in a very Hacker News fashion, argued over whether the programmer should get paid for their results or their time, and how economic theory looks at each of these (for example, which approach the economist Adam Smith argued for in “The Wealth of Nations”).
Other commenters admitted they had also automated their work at various points in their careers. One said they did web development when they were a student and were paid by the page, and automated the process of building the pages.
“And surprisingly, at least to naïve me, they were annoyed that I automated it,” wrote the user on Hacker News. “Even though they got the same result for the same money, and we had explicitly agreed to do it by output, not by time. I learned something that day, though I’m not sure what.”
This isn’t the first time such a thing has come up. Last year, a Reddit user claimed he was fired from his job after it was discovered he’d automated all of his tasks six years earlier and hadn’t done any actual work since. There’s also a somewhat mythical tale, documented on a GitHub page, about a programmer who’d automated everything from fixing server issues to texting his wife.
The user with the most-upvoted comment on Reddit concerning Etherable’s dilemma said they’d once automated a job writing reports for an insurance company.
“I had to generate reports weekly and monthly,” they wrote. “After a year on the job I had all the reports automated and had no work. For six long months I had one hour of work per week. My bosses knew it though and they were trying to find work for me.”
Etherable posted the question June 27 and so far has not posted an update or a response to any of the suggestions.