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The Charlie Sheen treatment: is workplace addiction a laughing matter?



You might have seen something on the news or online recently about Charlie Sheen, or maybe one of your co-workers or friends mentioned some of the outlandish things Sheen has said in interviews recently. You might have thought, “Charlie Sheen? He’s still around?” Or maybe you know his hit sitcom, Two and a Half Men, so you know he hasn’t faded away into obscurity. (By some small coincidence, I threw on the 80s classic Lucas recently and watched a fresh-faced Sheen in one of his first movie roles.) At any rate, you might have been surprised that by his own admission he had done and was continuing to do the amount and kinds of drugs that only celebrities can do and continue to live.

Since I look at a diverse pile of news sites every day and I follow a diverse pile of people on Twitter, it’s been almost impossible for me to avoid the news that Sheen had some sort of meltdown in which he insulted various people involved with his TV show. His network subsequently fired him and he has gone on to great infamy with his comments about having tiger blood and living on a different plane of existence. Everyone wants to have a laugh at his expense, and Sheen has been only too willing to oblige. It seems clear to me that he is addicted to various drugs and has no apparent desire to seek help. The alternative is that he actually is some sort of genius whose words truly are beyond the common people’s understanding.

I think the former possibility is the more plausible theory. But if so, how can we justify laughing at a man who has serious problems and has just been fired from his job? There are deep problems with his scenario. Would we ever think of laughing at a co-worker in that situation, no matter how well he handled his addiction? I sure hope not.

In fact, in Canada at least Sheen would probably have a pretty good case for wrongful dismissal. The network clearly discriminated against him on the basis of disability—his addiction. His former employer might argue that he was insubordinate and had damaged the employment relationship, but his lawyers could fairly respond that he was under the influence of his addiction and that he needed accommodation, not discipline—and certainly not termination.

I don’t mean to be a scold. Many might argue that there is little to no harm in having a laugh at the expense of a man who clearly has the means to take care of himself and who still appears (arguably) to be in control of his actions. And that’s fine. But I’m certain that many have chosen to ignore the fact that this is a serious mental health issue, which in other instances would be cause for alarm rather than laughs.

Of course, this type of thing probably happens all the time in Hollywood. I can just imagine the type of protective language in all the employment contracts down there.

For your edification, look at The Human Resources Advisor for your jurisdiction for information on accommodating disabilities, specifically mental health issues. Also, check out HRinfodesk for a wide selection of articles on the issue of addiction in the workplace.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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5 thoughts on “The Charlie Sheen treatment: is workplace addiction a laughing matter?
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Hi Dave; thanks for your comment!

    Truly I have no idea of any accommodation negotiations that took place between Sheen and his producers and network. If the employers attempted to accommodate him and he refused to cooperate, they would certainly have a justification for terminating him. But I don’t know. I was merely using the case as an illustration of the legal dangers associated with employees suffering from addictions.

    However, in most jurisdictions in Canada, alcoholism and drug addiction (and I won’t say for certain that Sheen suffers either of these things) are considered disabilities. That is because, regardless of whether or not a person has the choice, as you say, to take the first drink or dose, an addiction is by definition beyond an individual’s ability to control without outside support.

    Of course, you may not agree with that definition, and that’s totally fair. I agree with you that individuals must take responsibility for their actions, and certainly some egregious behaviour deserves commensurate punishment. But I also believe that individuals deserve an opportunity to change their behaviour in a supportive environment.

    Perhaps I should address the other side of the issue that you bring up in a follow-up post!


  • Dave Quinn says:

    I honestly think Adam Gorley may be incorrect in his assertation. Charlie Sheen’s employers took every possible action to accommodate Charlie’s “disabilities”. If Charlie refuses to take advantage of these accommodations, and actually regresses, then the employer should not be held accountable. At some point, the employee should be required to take responsibility for his own actions and access possible company programs to overcome his “disabilities”.

    I also disagree that alcoholism is a disability for the reason that it is self inflicted and the “sufferer” should be responsible for accessing treatments. To refuse to take responsibility for your own actions, and actually blaming everyone else, you will never take the first step toward recovery. Disabilities should be classed as afflictions which occur through no fault of your own. Birth defects, accidents, etc. Alcoholism and drug addiction are self inflicted. No one forces you to take that drink or shoot up. He made a conscious decision to take drugs and drink alcohol, and thus his “disability” is self inflicted.

    His employer made every effort to work around these issues. At what point does their culpability end and his start? Employers are not babysitters. They expect a days work in exchange for a day’s pay. In Charlie’s case he broke the employment contract and thus his employers should no longer be responsible to uphold their part of the agreement.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks Joanne,

    There sure are lots of issues—and misconceptions—surrounding mental health and addiction in the workplace and in society in general.

    Too often we think it doesn’t really matter because it’s happening somewhere else. Unfortunately, it seems like these problems in Hollywood have spawned an entire industry and audience, which distracts from the reality of the issues.


  • Adam Gorley says:

    Well, that didn’t take long. On behalf of his co-workers and himself, Charlie Sheen is suing his studio and the producer who fired him. While most of the lawsuit doesn’t seem to relate to Sheen’s drug problems, his lawyer did say “they fired Charlie when he was sick, and that’s a violation of State and federal law.”

    I can’t quite believe that I’m citing TMZ, but there you go.

  • Joanne Royce says:

    I agree with you Adam.I’m posting a 3-part blog series which I started last week, looking at the Charlie Sheen issue from a management and HR perspective. “What to do about Charlie?” Part 1 Dealing with mental health & addiction issues in the workplace is no laughing matter and requires care and caution. Glad you’ve expanded on the legal perspective.