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

Stack Exchange:

I currently work on a legacy system for a company. The system is really old – and although I was hired as a programmer, my job is pretty much glorified data entry. To summarise, I get a bunch of requirements, which is literally just lots of data for each month on spreadsheets and I have to configure the system to make it work, which is basically just writing a whole bunch of SQL scripts.


So I’ve been doing it for about 18 months and in that time, 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. 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.

Where’s the author’s obligation? To their employer, or to themselves? Is the company paying for the problem to be solved, or for the employee’s time?

To me, the “I’m doing something wrong” alarm went off pretty early on in the conversation. But not everyone feels this way. If the company has no obligation to keep the employee employed once the shortcuts are revealed, does the employee have the “self harming” obligation to reveal those shortcuts?

  • ChuckO

    I think it’s fine but I would want a better job so I would figure out a way to use the extra time to improve my skills and get a better job. I doubt heshe would have taken a job like that if they could do something more challenging.

  • i’m not sure about “unethical,” but it seems…shady.

    i wonder if, upon telling his employer what he’s accomplished (and it’s an accomplishment, surely), they wouldn’t be impressed and give him more money / responsibility. who doesn’t want that?

    or, worst case, they fire him for misleading them (and he has, surely), but he’s got a terrific line to put on his resume: “automated sql data consolidation, leading to 90% workload reduction,” or whatever phrase you might use (i’m not in tech, so i frankly have no idea what he’s talking about).

  • Seems more like an opportunity to volunteer for more duties than an obligation. I automate a good chunk of my work flow, brag about it on reviews, and have steadily advanced and accumulated more duties. Granted, I never turned months into minutes, and my workflow changes, which means automation adjustments, but I would rather be fired for being too good at a job than stay in a mediocre one. However, a good employer should value and reward achievement. A bad one, well, doesn’t matter because who wants to stay with a bad employer?

  • The Cappy

    Would he lose his job, though? Or would he get a better one? He’s got some skills beyond data entry. Even if they did fire him, he could easily go to another employer, show him what he’d done and get a better job. I think his bigger problem is that he’d rather have a low paying sinecure that lets him slack off than a higher paying one where he has to actually work.

  • DanielSw

    This brings up the philosophical question: what is the actual “pay” for a job? It’s actually NOT wages or salary, it’s the enjoyment of putting out the effort of doing the job.

    Finding ways to use machines (computers) to get more work done should be a point of pride and something one’s superiors should know about and feel good about.

    Don’t use computers to get out of work. Use them to get more work done.

    • You’re one of those folks who wants to work until they drop, I bet. Very few people (I’m one of them) actually gets to do a job they love. Mine is photography. But that’s become less and less a part of the overall job.

      Still, I can’t wait to retire. Less than four years now! I would much rather be hiking on a trail in Juneau, Alaska taking photos for me, than sitting at a desk calling Corbis Images for the umpteenth time to send them another $200 for a photo of the latest Christie’s auction piece owned by LIz Taylor.

      On the plus side, Liz knew how to beat the crap out of a $100 million necklace Richard Burton bought her. She believed in using her stuff. (For the record, Bill Gates sold Corbis to China, and that has made my job vastly more difficult. Not to mention the Ansel Adams collection is now in their hands.)

    • Mo

      Taking pride in my work is nice, but it doesn’t pay my rent or buy groceries.

      Regarding your last paragraph, remember, this guy said he’s employed, not freelance. Employers have been using automation to put people out of work for over a century. You’re assuming this guy’s situation would reward him for efficiency, but that’s not always the case.

      • edsug

        They would almost certainly fire him.

        I once was in a conversation where a guy was telling us about how, as a salesman, he abandoned the adversarial approach of his company for a cooperative one, and his sales were 43% higher than the next best performer.

        And because his performance was making his boss look stupid, his boss did everything he could to get him fired.

        • Mo

          Depends on the company’s culture. There are variations out there.

  • I think automating the process was smart. The wrinkle here is that he did it six months ago, which surely puts him in a hole now of his own digging as far as letting the company know and keeping his job.

    The best thing to do would have been to do the work by hand for a couple months after automating it to make sure the numbers agree. Then he could have told his employer that he’d automated the process, check out this script he’s been testing for a few months, and what else did they need him to automate?

    If he managed to automate himself right out of a job, he’d surely get a good recommendation at least.

  • opsmason

    I think they’ve outgrown the job, and its time to move on. Either inside the company, if there is something interesting, or somewhere else entirely.

    They also have an obligation to their future self. Sitting in a job doing nothing is not going to help them grow; not going to help them stay employed five, ten years from now.

  • I automate my job. I use AppleScript, Filemaker Pro, Numbers, TextExpander, and Keyboard Maestro to do metadata processing. I manage a 250,000 image database (Extensis Portfolio) and I also do all the Photoshop work and photo editing ( licensing, metadata, acquiring, shooting. travel, etc.). Used to be three people doing this job. But it’s been me for the past 10 years. So automation has saved my life on many levels.

    I spent two months working on one Applescript. It can take a folder full of images and generate an XML file that could be read by the company’s DAMS (Opentext Media Manager) to import photos automatically rather than requiring about 10 manual copy/pasts to get the metadata in after importing the photos manually one-by-one. It was a big risk if it didn’t work out. But in what I learned, I was able to automate many other processes. And it turns out the next Fall we got a mandate from the CEO to take all of our courses on-line beginning with the first one the following January. If I hadn’t done all that automation prep, I would have never made the deadline.

    The problem with automating your job and telling your boss, is that your boss will now expect more from you. This is the American way. Squeeze more blood from each turnip and you care hire fewer and fewer turnips to do the job.

  • GS

    He was hired to do a job and he is doing it. Seems to me the company has an obligation to audit how he does the job, especially with data handling.

  • Mo

    I believe the author’s obligation is to make certain the assigned task is done correctly and within deadlines. He’s being paid for his expertise and attention. If this was about a freelance gig, I’d say the conversation would be more about whether his hourly rate is high enough for the time he’s billing. But it’s a salaried position.

    Boring or not, this sounds like a great way to support and spend more time with his family, while it lasts. I’d wonder whether the employer’s blind spot about efficiency extends to its other daily needs, and therefore its continued viability.

    But if he (it’s a “he,” right?) feels the relationship with his employer (and the company’s structure) merits it, he can decide whether it’s risky to inquire about the options for added responsibility as a spur to “career development” and additional compensation. If that’s not a likely option, and his standing agreement with the employer allows it, he can pursue freelance work on the side, no?

    I’ve rarely been very good at automating my work, but I’ve gotten faster at it. As a freelancer, that means I can get more work done if it’s available.

  • Corey Reynolds

    I had this exact same experience working on a seminary campus while going to school. In my case, I told them what I had done, and they were so happy not to have all of the difficulties they were used to that they just let me sit at a desk and do my schoolwork every day, and they still paid me. I was always quick to help on IT issues, though, and I volunteered to help out every time they had a large workload.

  • edsug

    Interesting to see the different points of view on this.

    My take:

    A lot of employers would grind up you and your family for animal feed if it was legal and would make them a dollar.

    You owe them nothing but the results you’ve been contracted to create for them.

    And nothing more.

    • Brandon

      Now THAT is a positive work ethic!

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  • alandanziger

    IMO the proper way to handle the situation while still preserving the OPs options would be to tell them that he/she has been working on a way to speed things up, and is there anything else they have that could be worked on (or any long-term tasks that could be started). But I would have done that a month or two into working on it, not 6 months after automating 95% of my workload away.

    I also agree with the commenters who said that adding the ‘bugs’ so they didn’t figure out it was automated wasn’t cool.

  • He’s doing the work he is being paid to do. The company doesn’t hire you to work 40 hours a week, they hire you to solve and fix a problem. Sounds like he is doing just that, just smarter.

    I’ve done something similar when working as a sales rep. The “expected” work was to grind out manual visits all day and all week. I got smarter with my clients, ended up visiting them a lot less – which made most of them a lot happier, raised sales, increased customer base, signed some pretty big deals with major companies, shut out my competitors. All while spending half my time sitting at home or down at the beach. I told my boss after about six months and he didnt give a damn.

    • Unfortunately, there are an inexplicably high number of companies and managers that equate the amount of time you sit at your desk to the value of you and your work.