Crossing personal-work line can blow up in your face

Lynne Curry

On the surface, the case gives new meaning to "boss from hell."

According to papers filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights, employee Deborah Stevens worked for the billion-dollar Atlantic Automotive Group (AAG) dealership. When she learned her supervisor, Brucia, needed a kidney transplant, she volunteered hers.

Although her kidney didn't prove a match, they worked out an arrangement under which Stevens donated her kidney and this elevated Brucia on the recipient list and she received a timely transplant.

After the surgery, Brucia said "thanks more than I can ever say." However, the prior positive work relationship disintegrated. According to Stevens, the boss who formerly praised her and to whom she'd given a life-saving gift "started treating me horribly, viciously, inhumanely."

On a day when supervisor Brucia was home recuperating and Stevens left work because she felt ill, Stevens said Brucia called her asking "Why aren't you at work? ...You can't come and go as you please." In later encounters, Stevens said Brucia added "don't expect to be treated special because of what you did for me."

When Stevens told Brucia about her continuing medical issues, Brucia allegedly responded "I don't care; sounds like a personal problem." Stevens said when she cried, Brucia sent her out of the office.

Stevens contacted the company's human resources department officer, Jeff Peck. Jeff convened a meeting between Brucia and Stevens. At this meeting, Brucia critiqued Stevens' work performance. Stevens alleged Peck told Stevens the situation was "too personal." Later, Stevens said she heard that although she was a great employee, the company stood behind her manager.

Gradually supervisor Brucia removed Stevens' responsibilities, ultimately demoting her by banishment to a dealership informally called "Siberia" 50 miles from her home. This added 100 miles of commute time to an already pressured working mom and gave her a new boss who said "here come the fake tears" when Stevens cried.

Stevens sought psychiatric and legal advice. Shortly after Stevens' attorney sent a letter to AAG concerning Stevens' mental stress, the company offered Stevens a return to her former work location but then fired her. Stevens plans to sue AAG for millions for disability-related discrimination and retaliation.

This situation, which appears wrong on so many levels, inspires the desire to hang Brucia and the company that didn't adequately accommodate a medically-challenged employee who'd given so much to a supervisor. Further, it illuminates traps both employees and employers may fall into.

Like other victims, Stevens further demonizes an already unlikable supervisor. Stevens alleges Brucia only hired her to gain access to her kidney and "groomed" her as a "back up" donor. She bases this on a conversation she had with Brucia between her two stints at AAG, when Brucia told her she needed a transplant, had a possible donor and Stevens told her if something happened she'd be willing to donate her kidney.

More likely Brucia needed a kidney, appreciated her employee's generosity but later felt the deal was done and didn't feel obligated to an employee whose work performance faltered.

AAG management defends itself by saying, "While we applaud Deborah Stevens for her selfless assistance to a fellow employee, the reality is that she was terminated from Atlantic Automotive Group for poor job performance over the course of many months ...her inability to meet the minimum standards for her job is well documented. ... Because we recognized her unselfish acts, we actively tried to resolve her job performance issues but a solution could not be found. To our surprise, she even declined a severance package from us and has declined to accept our offer to pay her COBRA medical insurance."

When supervisors and employees cross the line between personal and work lives, they set off irreversible consequences. Supervisors, employees and companies need to understand the loyalty those who go above and beyond expect from others.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co. Inc. For questions, Curry can be reached at