Charlie Sheen as Toxic Asset

While actor Charlie Sheen may not be a ‘toxic asset’ in the technical sense, he’s clearly become too much of a liability for the companies who have thus far been profiting richly from his services.

In case you don’t already know all the gory details, here’s one version of the story, by Bill Carter, writing in the Business section the NY Times: Sheen Tantrum Likely to Cost in the Millions

Charlie Sheen’s latest antics may leave CBS and Warner Brothers with a quarter-billion-dollar headache.

The two companies decided on Thursday to halt production of the hit CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men” after Mr. Sheen, the star of the show, unleashed a barrage of vituperative comments about the sitcom’s creator, Chuck Lorre.

The loss of next season’s episodes would mean forgoing about $250 million in revenue between Warner Brothers, which produces the show, and CBS….

Sheen, of course, was already a famously problematic ‘talent’ long before his decision to publicly and viciously bite the hand that feeds him. Sheen has a long history of handing the tabloids easy headlines through his penchant for drugs and booze and prostitutes and property damage and domestic violence.

Several writers have already suggested that all of that should have been enough to make Sheen persona non grata, but it wasn’t. As the LA Times’ Mary McNamara put it,

If you are the star of a hit comedy on CBS, you can keep your job in spite of accusations of: threatening your pregnant second wife; holding a knife to your third wife’s throat on Christmas Day; and indulging in cocaine-fueled weekends during which your bizarre behavior causes your female companion to fear for her life.

I think from a Business Ethics point of view, we can look at this in two ways.

1) Employment. From an employment point of view, this is a question of CBS and Warner Brothers having an employee with serious behavioural problems, most of which have been after-hours problems rather than on-the-job problems. As McNamara reports, Sheen’s bosses referred to his domestic abuse troubles as “very personal and very private.” Of course, any employer needs to recognize that it will always be the case that at least some of their employees will have personal troubles, and it’s not entirely clear that such problems are grounds for dismissal. But what employers cannot ignore is insubordination, and that’s basically what Sheen’s recent outburst amounts to.

2) Production methods. In an age of conscious consumerism, people are paying a lot more attention to the way in which the products they enjoy are produced. The average consumer is more likely than ever to want to know whether their clothes were made in third-world sweatshops or whether coffee was made with beans that were traded fairly. For the bizarrely popular product that is “Two and a Half Men”, Charlie Sheen is a major part of the means of production. And all available evidence suggests that consumers of that product just don’t care that, in order to produce it, CBS and Warner Brothers had to turn a blind eye to behaviour that was by turns childish, unethical, and criminal.

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