Is automation ethical?

There’s a worry amongst workforces that bots are taking our jobs. Known as automation anxiety, more and more teams are falling foul of the fear that they too will soon find themselves replaced by automation.

This is a fear pervading almost every industry, from customer service, to admin, to more creative roles. As automation becomes more proficient, people worry about more jobs being taken over. It’s argued, for this reason, that automation causes harm to both people and society.

But if it causes so much worry, stress and fear, is automation ethical? Can we trust it?

Here, we explore the ethics, advantages, and issues surrounding workplace automation.

Stat: 37% of workers are worried about losing their jobs directly because of automation – PricewaterhouseCoopers

Workplace anxiety

Part of the reason people are wondering ‘is automation ethical’ is due to automation anxiety.

When it’s first brought into the office space, employees are inclined to worry about their role and responsibilities. They don’t know if their job will change; if their contribution will diminish; if they and their colleagues still have job security.

The unclear nature and initial unrest of introducing automation can quickly cause a panic-induced dip in morale.

If you don’t handle the introduction of automation carefully, it can be both unsettling and stressful. This stress can then lead to extra harm unless the fears are addressed. Valued team members jump ship, while the office atmosphere takes a hit.

The best way to deal with this potential ethical hazard is to keep the purpose of installing automation software clear. Reassure your employees that the software is there to help them, rather than replace them.

This upfront clarity helps reduce workplace anxiety. In turn, it reduces the ethical concerns surrounding employee mental welfare.

Stat: More than 25% of jobs in the US are experiencing high levels of disruption due to automation – Brookings Institution

Job loss

Another consideration in the ‘is automation ethical’ question is the fear that automation will mean fewer jobs are available. After all, automation is getting more and more capable across more and more disciplines.

Unfortunately, many of us drive our perception of personal identity through our jobs. Losing them, then, can lead to depression and identity loss – a definite form of harm.

Plus, if automation takes jobs, there could be even more people out there struggling to put food on the table and feeling useless to society.

But is this really likely to happen? Certainly, if automation does lead to job loss without any kind of alternate income provided, that creates a huge ethical issue. (One that not only affects individuals but threatens to harm society as a whole.)

However, it’s not automation itself that is the potential cause of this ethical issue, but the way in which it is used.

Automation may well reduce the need for human workers to complete mundane admin tasks. But it doesn’t reduce the need for human workers that can complete higher-value tasks, the human touch in service, and make critical decisions.

We don’t yet know whether the widespread adoption of automation would free us from labour altogether. Some predict that automation could lead to a huge personal time revolution where we no longer have to work, and instead live on a universal income.

In this kind of society, we could all spend our time on creative, enjoyable, or benevolent pursuits. It’s even suggested that automation will create more jobs than it takes — most of which will pay better than current roles.

Stat: ~33% of new jobs created in the United States are for occupations that did not exist or barely existed 25 years ago – McKinsey & Co.

Is automation ethical?

To truly answer this question, we must ask what counts as unethical. Is it possible for a product, an object or a thing to be unethical? The common definition of ethical relates to morals, and applies far better to behaviour, rather than objects.

Automation is a tool and not a behaviour, so the question ‘is automation ethical’ really boils down to whether the creation and use of automation software are ethical.

Used correctly, automation can improve working life for your team. It can open the opportunity for team members to seek further training and progress in their careers, and it can take away the tasks that leave team members feeling drained or frustrated.

Therefore, the creation of business process automation is completely ethical — its goal is to improve working life for thousands of people across the world.

Automation becomes unethical when you use it incorrectly – in an unethical way. Fortunately, this means that those ethical issues around automation become fully avoidable.

Stat: 57% of employers say that the main goal of automation is the augmentation of worker performance and productivity – Willis Towers Watson

How to ensure your automation use is ethical

So, is automation ethical? Most ethical issues surrounding automation software are born from the failure to remember that automation is there to improve the work of your employees. It’s not the enemy, and it’s not a usurper.

As long as automation is treated as an assistant and not a replacement, any ethical problems are addressed.

Automation is ethical. It is a tool, and as a tool, it cannot be morally ambiguous (just as a knife isn’t morally ambiguous, even if it can be used for unethical means). If you treat it as a tool to help your employees, as opposed to replace them, there is no cause for ethical concern in the implementation of automation software.

Further reading