28

We've all heard the saying:

Work smarter, not harder.

...But I wonder if this takes it a bit too far.

A friend of mine works as a data entry clerk at a well known survey company. He gets paid a piecemeal wage and his firm lets him work from home, five days per week, as long as he does a required minimum every day.

Last week, while we were celebrating Cinco de Mayo, I asked him how work was going. He said, "Honestly, it's never been better. I've outsourced all of my work to Mechanical Turk and ELance, and my boss has no idea. My take home pay has never been higher (even accounting for what I pay Mechanical Turk and ELance), and during my free time, I've been studying for the bar exam!"

So I guess I have a two-part question:

  1. Is this ethical? Specifically, could my friend lose his job because he's violating a norm, rule, or law? Or even because he didn't obtain permission from his boss?
  2. Is this totally unprecedented? Or is it just smart (in the spirit of the 4-Hour Workweek)?

I am providing the following additional clarifications in response to the first comments received:

  1. He's a contractor.
  2. The data has been anonymized before it reaches him.
  3. He was not made to sign any documents forbidding this behavior before he began his employment, and he did not sign any.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • 2
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about performing a job function not about navigating the workplace. It is also about ethics witch is off topic. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 10 '14 at 4:35
  • 4
    This question is not "about ethics", although it does indeed have an ethical component. Ethics is not off-topic see: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/a/454/437 and meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/a/456/437 – Jim G. May 10 '14 at 4:55
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    While I don't see this question as off-topic, I'm concerned that two of the three first answers so far are primarily just someone's opinion with nothing to back it up. Is it possible to edit this to encourage a little more? If we can encourage answers that are in the spirit of the six subjective guidelines that would be awesome! A good answer would be one that explores the issues, consequences, and considerations with some depth. – jmort253 May 10 '14 at 16:56
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    @Arpith, too localized was removed as a close reason in June 2013. "Too Localized was, by far, the most misused close reason in our surveys, with both Community Managers and Moderators deeming over 50% of randomly sampled TL closures to not have merited closure (including on SO)." If you can find an appropriate close reason, please feel free to flag the post with that close reason and it will be reviewed by the community. Thanks in advance! – jmac May 12 '14 at 23:39
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    Here is an example of a guy from USA who outsourced his own job to China - bbc.com/news/technology-21043693 – sid smith Jul 5 '14 at 0:37
21

There's an obvious risk regarding confidentiality - if any information can reasonably be considered confidential (which can still be true even if the data has been anonymized), there's a serious breach of trust there.

One can probably argue a breach of contract - even if the contract doesn't explicitly state you're not allowed to outsource, it might mention that you are expected to do the given work (and, by implication, not just get it done however you see fit).

Not sure how strong a legal case regarding expectation is, but a breach of expectation is certainly in play here - if you hire someone to do a job, you hire them to do the job, not to get someone else to do it.


There was actually a case of someone working at a well-known company having been caught doing this some time ago. As I remember it, he was fired, but giving the contractor access to their systems might have made the offence a bit worse.

  • 9
    "...if you hire someone to do a job, you hire them to do the job, not to get someone else to do it." -- I really don't think this is black and white unless you're excluding all forms of agencies and small business contractors. It's extremely common for a single contractor to represent his/her own business and set up the deal and then have apprentices do 99% of the work while they are paid a fraction of the total wages. – Nicole May 10 '14 at 2:40
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    "if you hire someone to do a job, you hire them to do the job, not to get someone else to do it." Someone should try explaining that to the government. At that level it's entirely routine to hand a contract to a company that does nothing more than subcontract other companies to do the actual work. – aroth May 10 '14 at 2:48
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    There was actually a case of someone working at a well-known company having been caught doing this some time ago. - The issue in that case was that he shipped an RSA key to China, and violated the security agreement of his contract. Ref: thenextweb.com/shareables/2013/01/16/… – Wesley Long May 10 '14 at 3:24
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    With subcontracting it is almost always known that the contractor will subcontract, and is written into the contract. That's rarely the case with a single employee. – DJClayworth Dec 14 '15 at 21:57
9

On the basis of the clarifying info/representations that you provided in your post, I'll say that your friend is legally and ethically in the clear as far as his dealings with the company are concerned. Your clarifying info met my three key concerns:

  1. The non-existence of a contractual relationship with the company that would have required your friend to either seek permission from the company's management before engaging any subcontractors or that prohibited outright his use of subcontractors.

  2. His employment status. The fact that you specified that he is a contractor and that his contractual relationship did not forbid subcontracting made his use of subcontractors as nothing out of the ordinary.

  3. Maintaining the confidentiality of the data that your friend provided to his subcontractors. Anonymizing the data did the trick. I am always concerned about any term in the contract with the company that requires data be kept confidential.

His dealings with his subcontractors are a whole other ball of wax, as I have no information as to whether he is paying the equivalent of the minimum hourly wage or more to his subcontractors.

  • Hey Vietnhi, you have quite a bit in the comments on the question. I was going to clean them up, but would you mind taking anything worth keeping and including here? Also, this seems like it may need some form of reference, but it will be easier to tell once everything is consolidated. Hope this helps. – jmort253 May 10 '14 at 16:53
  • @jmort253 All my comments were directed at eliciting the additional info from the OP. OP cooperated, updated his post to include the info needed and I was able to produce a concise answer. Feel free to get rid of my comments - and thanks for asking :) – Vietnhi Phuvan May 10 '14 at 17:04
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    Anonymizing data doesn't necessarily deal with confidentiality concerns, since the anonymized data might still be company-confidential. In this case the data is being sent piecemeal to many different people via Amazon, so the consideration might be complex. But for a simplified extreme example it is not automatically acceptable to just hand a survey company's complete anonymized database over to one of their competitors. Their exclusive access to that data has value to them, so the data is confidential despite being anonymized. – Steve Jessop Dec 8 '15 at 12:54
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    I don't think we can state anyone is legally in the clear on this site as we aren't allowed to offer legal opinions. – Laconic Droid Dec 14 '15 at 19:33
9

As a contractor in Australia, I would say yes this is entirely ethical (barring information to the contrary).

For example, here is what our Tax Office has to say:

An employee cannot sub-contract or delegate the work - they cannot pay someone else to do the work.

A contractor is free to sub-contract or delegate the work - they can pay someone else to do the work.

https://www.ato.gov.au/Individuals/Working/While-you-are-working/Considering-becoming-a-contractor/

  • 2
    I might add that in Finland it is extremely common to sub-contract work in construction in particular. Sometimes there's even three levels of delegation, which is funny but true. – Juha Untinen Jul 4 '14 at 12:20
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    The right of substitution is also a feature of UK Contracting. Your friend is not an employee, they are a business. The problem here is they aren't informing their client. – Nathan Cooper Dec 14 '15 at 19:38
  • @NathanCooper but is there such a duty to inform a client? – Robert Columbia Mar 22 at 15:11
5

It is common place to outsource when you take a contract to accomplish something for your client. That is completely ethical, and actually great if they can provide employment for others. Having a "team" is common place. But what strikes me as a point of concern is that this person said "... and my boss doesn't even know." This statement implies dishonesty in his activity. Hence, I would venture to wonder if his contract actually has a term/condition in it that forbids outsourcing. If so, he is acting unethical and in breach of contract. And that tying back to "work smarter, not harder" in the long term isn't at all smart. It will come back to bite him in the behind eventually. Always does. Be honest from the start and your business will hold longevity and stability.

5

If there is nothing in the contract that forbids this type of action, he may very well in the clear except for two potential area of concern:

  1. Years of experience. If they were hiring a specific person based on their years of experience, but then it was being subcontracted to a person with lesser skills the customer might feel they over paid for the service.

  2. They are responsible for the accuracy of their employees work. If somebody that they hired does a poor job, they will be responsible for the employees mistakes. This may mean that they have to do the work again, for free; or they might have some other penalties; or the customer may could fire them. If they don't spend some time performing quality checks they will be taking a huge risk.

If the customer ever finds out, the customer can jut go around the middle man.

Keep in mind that the customer may have different rules based on whether they are hiring a person, or a business. If your friend is acting like a business, they may face additional requirements and costs.

  • #2 might take care of #1. – Dan Henderson Jul 5 '17 at 20:52
  • @DanHenderson exactly. If your employee does a subpar job, you can fire them. If you contractor outsources to a subcontractor that does a subpar job, you can end the relationship with the contractor. – Robert Columbia Mar 22 at 15:13
3

According to your edit, there is no reason he shouldn't outsource. Whether or not it's ethical depends on what level of ethics you, himself, and his boss expect to be reached. Personally, I see it as a smart move to gain a productivity boost. From what I see, you have the tendency to think of it as being unethical. As for whether or not this is unprecedented, the practice is nothing new.

  • Hi Alex, Workplace SE is not a forum for advice. Can you please expand this to meet the guidelines of the back it up rule listed in help center? – jmort253 May 10 '14 at 16:49
  • @jmort253 where exactly am I giving advice? – user11026 May 10 '14 at 17:10
  • As for expansion, not sure if I can say anything more than "since there's nothing legally requiring your friend to not outsource, there's no reason for him not to", which is something that can be deduced by reading the question. – user11026 May 10 '14 at 17:20
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    Maybe "advice" is the wrong choice of words, so I'll clarify: Right now, as a reader, there's no way for me to judge the difference between an answer saying this is okay and a hypothetical answer saying it's not okay. If you can expand on the reasoning a bit more and focus more on the why, I think it would help others be able to determine whether or not this is indeed the correct approach to outsource or whether it isn't, especially if you have some research on the topic or even experiences that happened to you personally. Hope this helps. – jmort253 May 10 '14 at 17:23
1

Whether this is legal or not legal depends entirely on the contract.

Whether it is ethical, in my mind, depends on why this particular person was given the contract. When you hire a business, there is some expectation that the business will hire or subcontract who it needs to perform the work but will do the due diligence to make sure the work is properly completed according to the contract terms.

When you hire an individual, it is more likely based on the skills that particular person brings to the table and thus it seems more like a bait and switch if he contracts out the work especially without letting the client know he is doing so (who is not his boss BTW if he is a contract worker but his customer).

Further giving unauthorized people access to even anonymized data is a bad thing. The structure of the database is also generally proprietary information. The business has a need to know who has access to the database and the right to limit it to only people they have approved of. Doing this without letting the company know is almost certainly unethical and depending on the nature of the database could open him to a lawsuit or to losing the business if they found out.

Further, he is responsible for the work. If he is too lazy to do the work, what are the odds he is properly checking it? What are the odds that the unofficial subcontractors are going to misinterpret the requirements when they have no access to the people who can answer their questions? What are the odds that the type of devs who can be hired at such little pay that he can make a profit on an individual contract are in fact going to produce work that is good enough?

In this case, he may well produce such bad work that he will lose not only this contract but his professional reputation which could result in a much reduced ability to get new contracts. And this is actually what he deserves for losing track of ethical behavior in the first place.

I missed earlier that his a a data entry clerk doing piecemeal work. I want to point out that for him to outsource the data entry, he would have to be providing his log in credentials to the workers he has hired and thus is giving them direct access to the company network. This is almost certainly unethical and may cause legal issues if someone uses that access to break into the company network.

If there is a data breach and it is traced to his login, then he could be in serious hot water as most people who are given access to a company network are required to protect that access and often sign something stating they will not provide their login to anyone else. And even if they don't catch him for providing his login, he might have to take the fall for committing the data breach even if it was one of his "helpers" who did it.

  • 1
    I think your point about third parties providing work product without the company knowing about it or authorizing it is critical to whether this is ethical. If the company is paying enough for someone to outsource the work and still make a living, they are likely expecting some value added above what they would have gotten by contracting directly with the third party. – ColleenV Dec 14 '15 at 19:34
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    A good rule of thumb is that if you think you have to hide the information from the customer, at least one of you is probably acting in an unethical manner. – HLGEM Dec 14 '15 at 21:41

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