In the world of business, ethics are very important, which is why countries often have lots of laws to help keep companies in line. Though these laws can sometimes fail to do what they are supposed to do, at least they do exist. This is the same as how companies often come up with policies for themselves, and even ignoring whether or not they follow these policies, it is sometimes interesting to look at and judge the policies as stated by the company. Also of note can be the company’s mission statement and its general information. This paper will look at all three of these areas and talk about the interactions between all of the possible pairs as well as all three together. In the end, that will lead to a better understanding of business ethics in general, and, as will be seen, virtue-based ethics and duty-based ethics in particular.
There are many companies to choose from, but it might be more interesting to pick one that works in an ethically neutral area. Just to discuss some examples at the extreme ends of what companies might do and how this affects looking at their ethics, oil companies are too connected to automatic ideas of evil, and nonprofit children’s hospitals are too associated with goodness. A nice middle ground on this range of automatic ethical assumptions is found with Sherwin-Williams Co., a company that deals in paint. Just because Sherwin-Williams Co. does not deal with ethically dramatic topics, though, does not mean its ethics are not important. In fact, Cochran (2002) found the area of ethics so necessary to discuss that it was included as one of the things that people could search for when looking for data about companies in the search system she patented. This further emphasizes the importance of figuring out the ethics of every company, not just the ones that deal with hot-button issues. In the case of Sherwin-Williams Co., both the mission statement and the code of conduct are easy to find online using a search engine. That is how they were obtained for this project. Next, it is necessary to give some background on the company. In addition, the mission statement needs some more analysis before a more in-depth look at overall ethics can be made.
In order to get an overview of what the company does, it is helpful to look at the published material that is out there. Even quoting this material at length is good, because there are well-written summaries available, like this one:
Sherwin-Williams manufactures, distributes and sells coatings and related products. The Paint Stores' division consists of Co.-operated specialty paint stores in the U. S., Canada, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Mexico. The Consumer segment manufactures and distributes a variety of paints, coatings and related . . . [and] Automotive Finishes manufactures and distributes motor vehicle finish products . . . International Coatings licenses, and distributes a variety of paints, coatings and related products worldwide. (Connor, 2005, p. 245)
This quote shows that the company is far more than normal people might realize, because usually all people see are the stores that the company runs, and not its other parts. When looking at the ethics, it is good to know that, because the scale the company runs on has a lot of application to that topic.
Generally, the information about the company that deals with ethics is mixed. For example, Newberg (2004) mentioned Sherwin-Williams in a positive light for its ethics in his article about, as he put it, “ . . . the intersection of law, corporate self-regulation, and ethics” (p. 253) in which he explained a little later that, “Congress directed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to issue rules requiring publicly traded companies to disclose whether they have adopted a code of ethics for senior financial officers” (p. 253). Sherwin-Williams Co. seems to be fine in this area, which makes it easier to believe that the company does value its ethics policy. However, on the other side, Brown (2010) questioned the company’s use of its logo, which looks like paint pouring over the Earth, and pointed out that this could mean the company’s ecological ethics are not very good. Yet this seems like a bit of a jump, to conclude all of that just based on the logo and the slogan, “Cover the Earth.” Taken all together, the things that weigh in favor of the company having good ethics seem to far outweigh the things on the other side. Now that this general information is known, the company’s mission statement should be analyzed.
The mission statement is interesting for its focus on virtue-based ethics. Also of note is the fact that the mission statement is repeated at the top of the conduct policy guidelines, saying the same thing again basically word-for word. That shows that the Sherwin-Williams Company takes its mission statement very seriously. Overall, the mission statement is divided into seven sections: integrity, people, service, quality, performance, innovation, and growth. Each of these sections focuses on how to be a better person for the sake of the company, which is a very virtue-based ethics way of thinking. Going forward, there will be a lot of information to be found in whether this mission statement matches the rest of the code of conduct. To really look at the company’s ethics, one must figure out the kind of ethical system used not only in the mission statement but also in other policies.
To start with, there are some virtue-based ethics approaches in the policies. Just as when a person uses virtue-based ethics, that person is doing it to become a better person, so, too, the company gives ideas for things to do based on whether or not those things make the company a better company. This shows up in the mission statement, and since the mission statement is repeated at the top of the code of conduct, as was said before, the company must find this way of thinking to be very important. As a quick explanation of how this approach works, one study put it as, “Virtue theory emphasizes the priority of the individual moral agent who has acquired virtues commensurate with the pursuit of a revisable conception of the good life—the well‐being of all in a defined community” (McBeath & Webb, 2002, p. 1015). In this case, the company is trying to emphasize the well-being of the community that it is a part of, trying to put being good as most important. However, this is not the only type of ethics that stands out in Sherwin-William Co.’s policies.
Though virtue-based ethics kick off Sherwin-Williams Co.’s discussion of its policies, the real bulk of the work is instead focused mostly on duty-based ethics. Since duty-based ethics is also known as rules-based ethics and obligation-based ethics, this is especially obvious because of some of the language Sherwin-Williams Co. uses in its documents. Each section starts off with a list of “don’ts” that do not even include a list of “dos” to balance them out. The way of thinking there is probably that if a person simply avoids breaking any rules, that will automatically make that person ethical, even though that goes against the idea of the virtue-based ethics from earlier. Adding to that, each section ends with a comparison of the “right” and “wrong” way to handle a situation, which only makes the company seem even more rule-based. That kind of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking can be hard to deal with in the long run. It can lead to people giving up and deciding they may as well be all bad if they have been a little bad. Putting the title as “Code of Conduct” instead of something softer, like “Guidelines,” also makes Sherwin-Williams Co. seem more rigid in its thinking. In addition, the lack of consequences or punishments included in the code could become a problem, because just implying that making a mistake gets someone fired is not very clear.
To have the best code possible, Sherwin-Williams Co. needs to make some changes. In particular, it would be better to mix in more ethical approaches to balance out the virtue-based ethics. For example, it would be more typical for a company to include some consequences in its code of conduct, so that employees would not be left wondering what happens to them if they do something against the code. The code as it stands seems to be implying that if someone messes up, just knowing that they are a bad person or have broken a rule will be enough to stop them from repeating that action, but the truth is that not everyone uses virtue-based or duty-based ethics to guide their decisions. In the end, for the business world, consequences-based ethics are almost unavoidable when writing up good policies.
Sherwin-Williams Co. has made a very interesting mission statement and code of conduct that show a great deal of virtue-based and duty-based ethical thinking at work. Though in some ways it is difficult for a paint company to make ethical mistakes that would be truly tragic, it is still important for the company to review its policies and see where there could be possible improvements to make. For this aspect, it becomes obvious that what the policies really need are more references to consequences-based ethics, because that type of ethics is the easiest to understand. As well, consequences-based ethics automatically suggest a course of action to follow in the sad event that the policy is broken, which the current system does not do. Taken all together, Sherwin-Williams Co.’s policies and the suggestions here made to change them can be applied to businesses everywhere. No matter what kind of product or service a company is involved with, taking a closer look at its policies and the ethics behind them is really important. If every company did that, people would live in a better world.
Brown, A. (2010). Cover the Earth. (Doctoral dissertation). New York, NY: State University of New York.
Cochran, N. P. (2002). U.S. Patent No. 6,345,273. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Connor, C. M. (2005). US company report: Sherwin-Williams Co. Mergent’s Dividend Achievers, 2(2), p. 245. doi:10.1002/div.2416
McBeath, G., & Webb, S. A. (2002). Virtue ethics and social work: Being lucky, realistic, and not doing ones duty. British Journal of Social Work, 32(8), 1015-1036.
Newberg, J. A. (2004). Corporate codes of ethics, mandatory disclosure, and the market for ethical conduct. Vt. L. Rev., 29, 253.