Ethics Chess Lesson: The Tale of the Kidney and the Ungrateful Boss

Ethics chess is complicated, but ignore it at your peril!

Ethics chess is the process by which one considers the likely chain of events that follow from an act, and tries to predict the ethical dilemmas that may result before they occur. Debbie Stevens and Jackie Brucia didn’t play ethics chess. This is what happened to them.

When  Stevens was exploring the possibility of returning to the Atlantic Automotive Group, where she had worked previously, she met with Brucia, her former and potential boss, and somehow got on the topic of Brucia’s health problems. She needed a kidney transplant, and had found a donor, though it was not yet certain that the kidney would be hers. Stevens said that she might be willing to contribute her own kidney if that donor didn’t work out.

Later, Stevens was hired by Brucia,and two months later, in January of 2011,  Brucia called Stevens into her office and told her that she had lost her organ donor. “Were you serious when you said you would be willing to give me one of yours?’ Brucia asked.  “Sure, yeah,” Stevens says now. “She was my boss, I respected her. It’s just who I am. I didn’t want her to die.’’ It wasn’t exactly a direct donation, but Stevens donated her kidney to a stranger who matched up well with it so Brucia could be advanced on the list and get a better matched kidney from another source. Nonetheless, Brucia got a healthy kidney because Steven’s gave up one of her own.

Then, in order, she…

  • Questioned the amount of time Stevens was taking to recuperate…
  • Berated and reprimanded her for her work when she returned…
  • Had her transferred to the Atlantic Automotive Group’s equivalent of a branch office in Hell, and
  • When Stevens complained, fired her.

Now Stevens is suing, alleging that her hiring was a sinister plot, a back-up plan to get Brucia a kidney if all else failed. “I decided to become a kidney donor to my boss, and she took my heart,’’ Stevens has told the press.

Great line.

So what’s going on here?

My guess is that Stevens made the initial offer as an easy way to ingratiate herself with a possible employer, never thinking she would be asked to deliver an actual kidney. I think that Brucia probably would have hired her anyway, but that the kidney offer didn’t hurt. I think that Brucia felt that it also wouldn’t hurt to ask Stevens if the offer still stood, once her other donor flamed out. I think that Stevens felt pressured to give up her kidney, having made the offer and then accepted a job.

I think once she had the kidney, Brucia felt it was essential that the rest of the staff not believe that there was quid pro quo deal being carried out, or that Stevens would get special treatment from Brucia. I think Stevens expected “gratitude” from her boss for, in her view, saving her life, and thus expected at least more consideration, certainly not less. I think Stevens’ resentment that she was, if anything, being treated worse than her fellow-staff members showed in her work, and that she created inherent tension in the office, hence her banishment to Outer Mongolia. I think her complaints raised the cloud of a serious and ongoing dispute that Brucia believed could only be resolved by severing ties with Stevens. And so Stevens was fired.

This epic mess could have been averted at many junctures. Stevens’ offer was an unethical job interview tactic, the equivalent of a bribe. Because of that tactic, Brucia had an immediate conflict of interest: she shouldn’t have hired Stevens, and having hired her, should never have brought up the previous offer. As Stevens’ boss, she exercised sufficient power over her to make the request feel more like a demand: Stevens was, in effect coerced. Should she have said no? Absolutely; or, if she really, genuinely wanted to give up her kidney for altruistic reasons, she needed to resolve to either quit her job or transfer to another office. If Stevens didn’t raise these alternatives before the transplant, it was Brucia’s duty to raise them, because the supervisor-employee relationship between the two women was bound to be disrupted and corrupted by the gift of the kidney.

Brucia had good reason, as a boss, to go out of her way to show Stevens no favoritism; Stevens, as a human being, had every reason to expect better treatment. This is why conflicts of interest are so devastating; they complicate relationships and duties so much that it can become impossible, literally impossible, to determine what ethical conduct is.

If Stevens had become a detriment and a liability to the office, Brucia had to fire her. The fact that Brucia had a healthy kidney because of her generosity should have been a non-factor in the decision. But would Brucia have fired an employee in the same circumstances who hadn’t given her a kidney, because she wouldn’t be going out of her way to prove that she wasn’t allowing her personal life to interfere with her workplace judgment? Who knows? An existing conflict can cause an individual to over-react to fight against the conflict too.

At a certain point in some relationships, the failure to play ethics chess and think ahead about how some actions can make future ethical conduct all but impossible results in lose-lose traps. Once Brucia accepted a kidney from her employee, she could no longer be both grateful and fair, objective and compassionate. Maybe it was all a dastardly plot, but I doubt it: after all, Stevens could have said no.

Several poor ethical choices by both parties resulted in a hopeless bind that was destined to cause unhappiness. Ethics involves thinking through the likely consequences of your actions. If you don’t think ahead and play ethics chess, you’re asking for trouble.

Or risking a kidney

50 thoughts on “Ethics Chess Lesson: The Tale of the Kidney and the Ungrateful Boss

  1. I disagree with the statement that the employee had no right to sue her employer. No matter why she gave the kidney to her boss, she deserved to be able to use her sick leave to recover. Removal of an organ in the abdominal cavity is major surgery, carries significant risk and take much longer to recover from than many other surgeries. As a medical doctor, I feel confident in the accuracy of this statement.

    The problem was that the employee was not allowed to use her legitimate sick leave. That moved the problem from being one with the individual boss to one with the commpany. The company has given Jackie, the boss, the authority to act for the company. The person responsible for the company’s loss is the supervisor, Jackie.

    The state of New York agreed with the employee and forced the company to settle with the employee.

    This employer, Atlantic Auto Group, also practiced widespread fraud against their customers as well:

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