Towards an ethical approach to RPA

David Biden
CEO of human+

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a tremendously powerful set of technologies, capable of transforming an organisation’s handling of routine, rules-based tasks for greater efficiency, accuracy and speed.

But by enabling a single person to do the work of many, it can also put people out of work. RPA implementers have a responsibility to educate clients on the broader effects of automation and help them take care of the people affected.

Five years ago, everyone wanted to be the next Facebook. But a series of ethically questionable decisions taken by the social media giant has begun to erode the share price and take the shine off of the company’s once impeccable public image. Future generations will judge today’s technology pioneers not on how much profit they made, but on whether they made a net positive or negative contribution to society as a whole.

There’s a lot of focus on the tech and efficiency savings, and little consideration given to the people whose lives will be affected by the changes.

With RPA, there is a lot of focus on the tech and efficiency savings, and little consideration given to the people whose lives will be affected by the changes. I’ve worked on many implementation projects and have come to feel deeply uneasy about this kind of approach. In one implementation I witnessed, 15 people were set to be out of work before the year was out, yet the company was simultaneously advertising 34 vacancies.

That’s when the idea took root: that there must be a way to have your cake and eat it, too; to achieve efficiencies with RPA and to look after the people within an organisation.

Considering the broader effects of RPA

To get to a more ethical version of RPA, we first need to stop viewing it as a point solution which delivers singular short-term savings, and instead look at how automation affects the entire organisation. There’s a lot more value to be gotten out of RPA if organisations can connect the dots, focusing on the humans that are affected by RPA as well as the technology.

If the people whose tasks have been automated can be redeployed to fill the open vacancies in other areas of the organisation, imagine the savings in recruitment fees and onboarding costs. In my experience, RPA displaces keen young people with a long career ahead of them. These people are often ripe for retraining and upskilling for vacant roles, particularly given the growing skills gap.

The Ethical RPA Method

I would like to propose a new approach to RPA which ensures that people are redeployed or upskilled where automation has affected their role. There are three guiding principles that summarise the Ethical RPA Method:

1. Think big

The first priority for RPA implementers should be to create value through understanding a company’s vision and how the organisation as a whole can benefit from automation. There should be considerable work done up front to prepare the organisation and its people for RPA through a wider engagement which requires education and (sometimes difficult) conversations with the entire team. This should include executives, IT, front line staff, procurement and sometimes unions.

It’s important at this stage to discuss with the executive team how this joined-up approach and broader initiative can lead to significant efficiency savings at the same time as taking care of the people within their organisation.

2. Start small

You can start with a simple Proof of Value (POV) phase, which within 40 days should not only demonstrate the power of RPA, and prove that the technology works, but also leave the organisation with a roadmap of how everyone, from the top down, can benefit from automation.

Getting it all out the way in the first 40 days means that, by the end of the POV, the executive team is educated on what automation is, they understand what it means for them as well as for the organisation as a whole and they are excited by the prospect of what it means to them in the future.

3. Plan for the long term

To ensure that people are taken care of, there should be a business case for the next ten processes to be automated along with a plan for how they can be tackled, the costs involved and the Return on Investment. This is a crucial point. ROI means different things to different people, so it’s essential to define what this means as early as possible in the process. Implementers need to take on the responsibility of not just implementing but educating too – even if it involves having the honest, challenging conversations and putting some skin in the game by upskilling staff.

Redeploying people and avoiding recruitment fees means payback for the business. Organisations don’t have to add to their existing headcount, they aren’t losing anyone from their current headcount, and they now have a tool and a process for how they can repeat this across the business. This means more robots being used to automate more processes, and an ever more efficient organisation.

Next, we take this a step further and plan how we can manage natural attrition through automation. This is a truly long-term and responsible view.

How history will judge RPA

The future is bright in the world of automation: everywhere you look the numbers are growing. It’s an exciting place to work and a wonderful thing to be a part of. However, everyone in the industry has a duty to engage with clients and create value in a way that ensures we maintain a positive image for the automation industry. That way we will be remembered as innovators that improved society, rather than as people who used technology to take advantage of those that didn’t understand it.

As digital ethics increasingly take centre stage in the world of technology, an ethical approach to RPA is the key to ensuring the growth of the industry continues.

To find out more about how your organisation can be ethical in RPA, call David Biden on +44 20 3285 7393 or visit


This is a modified version of an article originally published in Computing.

News and Views

David Biden
CEO of human+