Maybe you remember this mini controversy that riled the web a few years ago: on forum Stack Exchange a programmer at a big company confessed that, without telling his boss, he had automated his job to the point that it only took him roughly an hour a week to complete.

"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," wrote the user known as Etherable. "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 six months has been just doing the whole thing for me. So what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe ten minutes."

An ethical quandary for one worker...

Etherable's question was simple: should he tell his clueless boss and risk making himself redundant? It was a knotty issue that spurred a ton of back and forth, but according to Ryan Duguid, chief evangelist for workplace automation company Nintex, this isn't actually the oddball story it might appear to be at first.

"We're living in an automation-crazed era, so managers will see the rise in self-automation first hand," he predicted in an email. "Across the enterprise, there is a search for tasks that can be done more efficiently. This hunt for identifying easy-to-automate processes is going to continue and increase."

This search is being led, in many cases, not by management but by employees, who are fed up with boring data entry or mindless repetitive tasks. That means more and more employees are going to face some version of Etherable's dilemma, but it also means managers are going to have to figure out how to respond to that reality.

... but an opportunity for smart bosses.

What should Etherable's boss have done to avoid the whole mess, I asked Duguid. His answer, in a word, was transparency.

Yes, it's unethical for Etherable to not mention his workload has shrunk from a month to a few hours, but it's also the responsibility of managers to discuss the possibility of self-automating parts of your job and to cheer employees on so they won't fear the consequences of greater efficiency.  

"Managers should continually encourage and show that their company embraces, not punishes, people who automate their work. If Etherable's manager were to find out that they automated their job, the manager should praise that person and work with employees to set this as a best practice across the company," he explained.

Rather than worrying clever hacks might spell the end of their job (or just be an excuse for their companies to dump more donkey work on them), employees should understand that management will applaud their efforts to to free up time for higher-level tasks. In order to accomplish this, employees must see their work not as a fixed to-do list, but as pushing toward a larger mission.

"If you don't have a mission and can't measure your employee's contributions to that goal, you may find your employees approaching self-automation in a negative way. Without a larger shared goal, self-automators may simply try to clock out faster and hide their automated workload," warns Duguid.

The bottom line is that employees self-automating their jobs is becoming more common. That's a great thing, but only if management knows how to handle it by cheering employees for their initiative and offering them a better work situation as a reward.

Fail to do that and it's very likely you'll soon have an Etherable of your own lurking in your company.