Recruiting Seen Through the Lens of Charlie Sheen

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As kids we’re not taught how to deal with success; we’re taught how to deal with failure. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If at first you succeed, then what?” –Charlie Sheen

Celebrity Math

CELEBRITY MATH/Image: Michael Moffa

What was your immediate response to seeing Charlie Sheen’s name just now? While most of the denizens, hangers-on and analysts of pop culture are focused and/or fixated on what is making Charlie pop and whether it’s “Duh—winning!” (Sheen’s most recent catchphrase), or something sad or nasty, it may be more fruitful to focus on you in connection with this, as a way to explore some of your recruitment attitudes, values and presuppositions—both actual and possible.

To illustrate and develop this exploration, it will be useful to compare your circumstances and scenarios to Charlie’s, to those of your job applicants/candidates/clients, and with the polarized public reactions to Sheen’s recent comments, the Sheen Korner Internet (one-man/one-God) broadcasts and various interviews.

However, just in case you either have no idea who Charlie Sheen is or why he recently set a Guinness record for the fastest time to garner 1 million tweets—25 hours and 17 minutes,  here’s a short overview: Son of TV and movie actor Martin Sheen (a family name chosen by Martin to honor archbishop Fulton J. Sheen), and younger brother of also-starring Emilio Estevez, and fired this week, Charlie is the highest paid (now, ex-)TV star ever, at $1.25 million per episode of the long-running “Two and a Half Men”—a CBS sitcom about a semi-dissolute bachelor writer living with his brother and the latter’s son, a case, his critics would say, of art struggling to imitate Charlie’s life.

In and out of gossip columns, TMZ broadcasts, tabloids and TV talk-show interviews, Charlie provides a steady supply of grist for the celebrity news mills—mostly for his binges, rages, rants, substance abuse, scrapes with the law, rehab stays, divorces and other split-ups, call-girl and porn-star ménages, and for his profoundly skeptical, vocal and articulate stance on the official government version of the events of 911.

That said, let’s map the general public reactions into a recruitment framework and explore their implications in a recruitment setting.  First, begin with an examination of the most common reactions to Sheen’s recent torrent of remarks he and his supporters describe as “winning”, overdue, truthful, insightful, just, courageous, brilliant, liberating, etc., and which his detractors see as delusional, overdone, manic, megalomaniacal, racist, ungrateful, self-destructive, scary, etc.  Second, consider the underlying mind sets that frame such dichotomous thinking about Sheen or anyone else, for that matter.

The following characterizations of Sheen’s current state and state of affairs are the most common assessments and responses in blogs and other media. Juxtaposed with them are implications for recruiters and HR managers.  These include the suggestions that Charlie

  • Should be praised as a hero

Recruitment: The smart recruiter does not overtly praise very much, or at least not effusively; instead he or she mostly allows the facts he or she presents about candidates and clients to do the praising. So, for consistency, perhaps you should neither praise nor condemn Sheen. “Just the facts, Ma’am. Nothing but the facts,” as Dan Aykroyd and Jack Webb memorably and predictably remarked in “Dragnet” and its remake.

This requires concentrating on “descriptive”, rather than on “prescriptive”, language, i.e., concentrating more on psychological observations than on (quasi- or crypto-) moral judgments. Characterizing Sheen (or anyone displaying similar extreme behavior) as “agitated” or “hyper-vigilant” is much more insightful and useful than calling him “loser”, “winner” or—over-simplistically “sick”, which very easily slides from the domain of value-neutral facts to that of glib moral judgment that leads nowhere therapeutically or otherwise.

  • Should seek immediate help and treatment

Recruitment: Is the sub-performing or troubled employee or candidate to be blamed or helped, told to pull up his socks, or referred to HR for counseling? The wise HR manager will encourage someone who is troubled to see himself or herself as having a role “apart from” and another role as “a part of” his or her networks, and offer encouragement to make the most of both roles and their respective resources, namely, by drawing upon inner, private resources and upon outer network available help.

  • Should be more grateful for all he has and try to be less greedy

Recruitment: Should you or an employee interpret a less-than-perfect placement as a glass that is “half-full”, “half-empty”, “cracked” or simply as “what it is”? The most empowering attitude to cultivate in yourself and in associates is to be as grateful as possible without thereby impairing your capacity or opportunity to enjoy additional gains to be grateful for in the future.

For example, the gratitude of a drug addict to his dealer usually merely ensures continued addiction and personal decay, whereas the gratitude of an ex-convict for a job is more likely to empower him to make a go of it, for a better future. That distinction should be noted and applied.

As for greed, it has been described as a genetically-based tendency that evolved in response to famine and scarcity during most of our species’ perilous past. So, instead of morally judging those you see as being greedy, try to understand their underlying fears—realistic or not, and try to address, allay or dodge them.

  • Should be envied

Recruitment: Should you compare yourself to recruiters who are doing better than you, or worse than you?—or not compare yourself at all? Which outlook among these should you encourage candidates to have?

Envy is one face of a dark coin. The equally dark flip side is “schadenfreude” (“harm” + “joy”)—glee at the misfortune of others. Many of the celebrity-obsessed flip from one to the other, or are at least highly susceptible to both, as they scan scandals looking for something to envy and/or to gloat over—the ultimate aim being to feel superior to their superiors or at least feel they are their equal.

Your best bet is to try to let others inspire you without making you envious, and to spread that message. As for “schadenfreude” (one of Lisa Simpson’s favorite words), try to see the successes of others as an inspiration and a win-win outcome—unless of course, you lost.

  • Should act more responsibly and accept responsibility for his actions

Recruitment: This one is subtle. Whenever anyone is asked to act more responsibly, there is a high likelihood that there is an implied criticism that they have not accepted a responsibility they should have.

The problem with this is that the implication immediately puts the “accused” on the defensive. A wise HR manager or recruiter will shift the implicit focus from accusation to empathy.

This can be accomplished by encouraging the “irresponsible” party to be “responsive”, rather than “responsible”—much as someone who rescues an injured bird is being responsive, even though not responsible for the bird or its condition. Consider this a very powerful tool for remotivating and guiding anyone—in and outside HR departments and companies.

  • Should be pitied

Recruitment: Should you offer applicants, clients and colleagues “tough” love or gentle compassion and sympathy when they or their deals fail? Risk reinforcing their sense of helplessness and failure, or risk undesirable consequences of minimizing their plight—which could include compounding their sense of injustice or hopelessness ? Should you encourage them to emotionally minimize their losses and risks, or to behaviorally maximize their proactive response to these, or both?

Here, the smart thing seems to be to simultaneously show empathy (not pity) and offer realistic encouragement (not prodding, badgering or goading).

  • Should be ignored as irrelevant to anything important

Recruitment: Just because a job sector is hot, does it mean it is important or right as an investment of your or a candidate’s time, energy and values, e.g., the tobacco industry, meat packing, or the full-body scanner industry? When you plant a candidate “tree” in a client company, always consider what values the “forest” represents.

  • Should be kept away from anyone he may harm

Recruitment: Should you risk catalyzing a spiraling self-fulfilling assessment of a colleague or candidate as “risky”—which may very well trigger precisely that destructive kind of self-perception and behavior in the candidate, or should you risk exposing clients to someone in whom you have lost faith?

Obviously, when “harm” means physical harm, “safety first” prevails. However, denying access to a source of a grievance has huge potential for exacerbating a problem—especially when the troubled or aggrieved party is seeking closure, e.g., an employee with a beef with a supervisor or a candidate who is persistent about wanting feedback from a client that has rejected him, or Charlie Sheen and his ex-wives.

  • Should try to set a better example for others

Recruitment: To what extent should a recruiter or an employee/candidate be motivated by the desire or goal to inspire others, beyond being motivated by the obvious considerations of personal gain?

A recruiter who was recruited herself implicitly does precisely that, every time she works with a job candidate or applicant, by inspiring faith in the recruitment process. Those who are self-employed recruiters may inspire their clients to eventually consider the self-employment option at some point.

  • Should keep up the fight

Recruitment: Like Hamlet, recruiters will, from time to time, have to consider whether to fight or at least struggle, or not—for a candidate, a client or for themselves. That’s obvious. What is less obvious is whether the willingness to fight is going to be based on the estimated odds of winning, or by some moral or other principle. That’s worth reflecting on in each instance.

  • Should give his “enemies” another chance

Recruitment: Giving a client, associate or candidate a second chance is normally and commonsensically decided on a case-by-case basis, e.g., if a job applicant fails to show up for an interview or fails an aptitude test.

However, despite the variability in the circumstances that raise the question of a second chance, there is one rule that seems very broadly applicable in recruiting and life in general, although with greater relevance to character than to skill: If someone has angered you and you can justify your anger, in the sense explained below, then no second chance; on the other hand, if that person has merely frustrated you, a second chance is worth considering.

What is the difference? Anger should be reserved for your real enemies only—those who harbor a demonstrable and “incorrigible evil will” toward you—that office rival who is relentlessly trying to sabotage a colleague or wishing he fails; for everyone else, including a fumbling colleague, a fickle job applicant, the guy in front of you driving too slowly, a thoughtless partner who forgets your birthday and your computer-smashing infant, the appropriate feeling is frustration, much like what two people trying to communicate in an emergency without a common language will or should feel and which does not preclude mutual good will.

Accordingly, those who frustrate, rather than legitimately anger you, deserve the prospect of a second chance and/or an exemption from anger.

  • Should be given another chance

Recruitment: Ditto the immediately foregoing, allowing that it is you who should be given the second chance.

  • Should try to be less narcissistic and/or delusional

Recruitment: Like job applicant characterizations, e.g., “proactive” vs. “pushy”, “team player” vs. “group dependent”, “narcissistic” and “delusional” are “slippery” concepts that can seamlessly slide from positive to negative connotations along a “semantic spectrum”. This phenomenon is one of the key factors that makes arguing about Charlie Sheen or anything else virtually interminable.

If you see an applicant positively, you are more likely to describe her as “proactive”, rather than “pushy”, just as if you view Charlie Sheen positively and/or share his views, you are far more likely to describe him as a “truth teller” than as “delusional”;  “confident”, rather than “megalomaniacal”; “energized”, rather than “manic”. Such bias-driven word choices can fuel, distort and eventually frustrate and negate any debate or dialogue about Charlie and virtually every other disagreement in personal/personnel assessment. So, choose your words carefully and thoughtfully.

  • Should share his vision with us or share his pain with Jesus or share his drugs, women and money with some of those who want them

Recruitment: Although all three of these bits of advice for Charlie invoke “sharing”, they do so in very different senses, to which an alert recruiter will be sensitive.  “Sharing a vision” is very different from sharing one’s pain and sharing one’s money. In this list, only sharing money involves sacrificing anything; the “shared vision” is closer to recruiting, proselytizing and entertaining. The shared pain is a shift, redistribution and unburdening to and through another.

So when, in response to the question “Why this job?”, an applicant says, “I want to share my experience and skills”, be on guard for a self-serving distortion of a probably more self-serving agenda, much like that of every celebrity who says, “I want to share my gifts”. No sacrifice, no redistribution? No real sharing.

The primary paradigm of sharing is pizza or money; the secondary paradigm is piano movers or turning to Jesus—redistribution of a burden. The third, “sharing” one’s feelings, talents, experience is bogus. Revealing, displaying, applying, parlaying—yes. Sharing? No. [Note: I’m glad to have had the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.]

Dealing with the Dueling and Dualing

As for Charlie Sheen, the word play and wars will continue, of course, abetted by vested interests, simple biases and wishful thinking. We will, for the foreseeable future, continue to read and hear “crazy”, “genius”, “immoral”, “pioneering”, “self-destructive”, “irrelevant”, “bold”, “winning”, “loser”, etc., etc., bandied about in connection with him.

Given this dichotomized chaos and sharply drawn battle lines, perhaps the fairest, best-balanced position to take on Charlie is the one you would take if you were recruiting him….

….for your company.

By Michael Moffa