It's a rare company today that doesn't use some degree of automation--leaders know it can save money and free workers to do creative tasks technology still can't handle. But what happens if a worker finds a way to automate his job, does so, and then doesn't tell his boss about it?

It's an ethical snake pit that one worker, identifying himself with the username "Etherable", actually threw himself into. In a July 27 StackExchange post that's been viewed over 485,000 times, he admitted his job is "pretty much glorified data entry" that requires configuring a system by writing SQL scripts. The worker, who does his job remotely, wrote a program that essentially handles the job he's supposed to do manually. He has been using it for the past six months without his boss knowing, pulling in a full-time wage for just one or two hours of work per week.

Initiative counts.

On the one hand, you have to give Etherable kudos for seeing a program could handle the task, and then actually writing the program himself. That's initiative. And as Terry Simpson, Technical Evangelist for Nintex points out, there's a business case for showing that as it relates to automation.

"In most organizations, the goal is to maximize shareholder wealth (owners' equity). Core benefits of automation are to improve efficiency/accuracy and provide better overall experience for customers and stakeholders. Employees have a responsibility to be good stewards of company resources, including time, money, systems, people, relationships. 
Automation tends to positively impact these resources in some way. So, when an employee automates some aspect of their job, they're being a better steward. Often they find ways to reallocate the time they've saved into providing even more value."

Simpson acknowledges workers can worry about job cuts and be leery of the change that self-automation can bring. But he asserts there are plenty of tools that let people self-automate -- no code writing required -- and that "citizen developers" already are found in most departments. Smart employers can differentiate between someone who's busy and someone who actually is bringing value into the organization. They can see the worker's motivation for self-automation is to help and protect.

For that reason, Simpson says he'd self-automate his own job in a heartbeat, and that, as long as it was in the best interest of the organization and nobody broke any rules, he'd likely reward someone creatively automating a process. He also says other leaders should do the same and encourage self-automation among their teams.

But there are ground rules to follow.

But here's the key. Once the self-automation is complete, you don't just sit on your hands.

"I'd focus on other ways of maximizing my skills in the organization," Simpson says. "This provides tremendous value to the business and enhances my reputation as an employee."

But that, of course, requires both transparency and communication. The question becomes, if you're not going to do the job you originally were going to spend time on, fine, but then what will you do?

"Managers should always listen and solicit feedback from employees on how things are going," says Simpson. "The best managers that I have worked for were always open to my input, and often my peers were the ones who came up with the best suggestions for improving processes, whether they were automated or not."

A natural, subsequent part of this two-way relationship on automation is ensuring you've got good policies in place. You need to make sure "shadow IT" doesn't creep in and create risk for you, for example.

This all assumes, of course, that workers aren't self-automating in an emergency circumstance. But even then, the worker who self-automates still can be forthcoming after the fact about their decisions. They can trust that their boss will see the good intent, and they can be clear with their boss about what the company can expect because of their choices, and take full responsibility for any ramifications.

This is where Etherable flubbed. Not only did he not communicate what he was doing with his boss and not work with management to find new, beneficial responsibilities, but he deliberately took steps to make it look like he still was performing manually, telling them he'd completed part of the work, getting them to do tests, and inserting bugs to mimic human error.

The bottom line is, the self-automation (which we should encourage) is not an issue. The secrecy and deception is. As Simpson points out, there are tons of inefficiencies that present good self-automation opportunities in every business. But how you take them makes a difference. Permissions and explanations matter. If you can't show either of those, if you're purposely misrepresenting how you're getting results and don't have a based-on-results-only pay agreement, then you're on thin ice. Get back to shore, and fast.