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What Can the Average Employee Learn From Charlie Sheen? Not Much.

Like a lot of other people, I’ve been following the Charlie Sheen story over the last week or so.

Of particular interest to me have been the Charlie Sheen stories touting a workplace angle. "We can all learn from what is happening to Charlie Sheen for our own personal and professional lives," trumpets Technorati. "How not to be the Charlie Sheen of your office," advises Reuters. "Here’s what Mr. Sheen can teach us about a day at the office," declares Lifehacker. "What can your organization learn from Charlie Sheen?" inquires a Huffington Post headline. "If CBS caves to Charlie Sheen, all bosses will look like wimps," warns a Boston Herald article.

So the shift manager at The Golden Corral will look like a total pushover if CBS “caves” to Charlie Sheen? Wow. Tread lightly, CBS management. Don’t mess it up for every other manager in America.

Let’s get real here: Charlie Sheen is the son of a famous Hollywood actor and followed his dad into the family profession. He may have recently lost his job, but at last count he was seeking at least $8 million in back pay. This $8 million figure doesn’t include the earnings he could make off what Hollywood calls "the back end," e.g., highly lucrative, pre-negotiated royalty terms and so forth. Yesterday, we found out he's suing his former employers for $100 million.

Let's just say Charlie Sheen is more likely to be on the hunt for a good entertainment lawyer instead of the nearest unemployment office. In fact, he might be the first to say that he’s not like the rest of us, and when it comes to the average workplace, he’s absolutely right.

Show me the average U.S. employee who is striving to be the "Charlie Sheen of the office" in this recession and I'll show you someone who might be looking for a new job soon. Managers in the real world don't have to put up with loud demands for sycophantic foot licking because there are hundreds of talented potential hires knocking on their doors looking for work. Employees know this in the back of their heads, and they’re working even harder to do a good job. Case in point: U.S. worker productivity has increased steadily in this recession, rising 2.6% in the fourth quarter of 2010 alone.

These "workplace lessons from Charlie Sheen" articles would have made much more sense in 1999, when unemployment was at 4%, employers hired anyone with a pulse, and employees were cocky and expected the corner office after three months on the job. But we're living in 2011, where unemployment hovers around 9%, employers aren’t in a hurry to hire, and employees are nervous and afraid of losing their jobs. The psychology of the today's workplace is driven primarily by silent fears, not unbridled egos. The employee who decides to "pull a Charlie Sheen" at work probably isn’t going to last very long, unless perhaps the employee is a rock star, rainmaking Wall Street trader or something. Hey, didn’t an up-and-coming actor once star in a 1980s movie called Wall Street? Who was that? Hmm.

I don’t begrudge Charlie Sheen his career success up to now; I’ve just read too many articles over the last week imploring the average employee or manager to learn a few "lessons" from Mr. Sheen’s public statements and workplace woes. But to compare Mr. Sheen’s job situation to the average employee’s job situation is like comparing salmon to smelt. They're both fish, but otherwise there's very little comparison. The vast majority of U.S. employees don’t get to vent their work frustrations to network news reporters, for starters.

So what workplace lessons can we learn from this whole episode? First, that substance abuse is a terrible thing. Second, that Charlie Sheen can’t be translated easily to the average employee. He has a different bank account; he has a different lifestyle; he has a different way of thinking about work. He’s got tiger blood, man.

So let Charlie Sheen be Charlie Sheen with his winnings, his warlocks, his mercury surfboards, his royalty rights and his musings that he never really liked the job, anyway. The average employee will simply be trying to keep, or find, a good job.

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