Every British company with a stock market quotation is suffering an acute tension between two conflicting aims. There is the demand from the stock market to deliver ever higher financial returns to shareholders with all that implies in terms of cost minimisation, flexible working patterns and multi-tasking. And there is the recognition that successful trading requires a satisfied workforce, a reputation for being a decent employer and delivering in terms of quality.
The argument has been that no such tension should exist, what is good for the business must be good for the share price, and attempts to require companies to be good corporate citizens is a contradiction in terms if it might endanger short-term profitability. Capitalism is essentially win/win, and if there are hard edges, so be it. But the tension does exist. Companies need to sustain their reputation, but consumers and workers are tougher in their judgements about businesses as employers and producers than they used to be.
The growth of litigation over employment rights going to Acas is one indication of the new mood. Others are the growth of the NGO movement, the ability of consumer groups to mount successful campaigns such as that over car pricing, and the various committees over the 1990s - Hampel, Cadbury, Greenbury, Turnbull - that have wrestled with corporate governance. Another is the growth of the ethical investment movement, with university and local authority superannuation funds indicating they will be much tougher over whether the companies in which they invest behave ethically and socially responsibly.
From a myriad of quarters the same message is being sent. Companies need to be just and decent if they are to win loyal workers and consumers.
Yet the pressures on boards to behave differently are no less intense. There is the ever-present threat of takeover. There is the need to demonstrate to an investment community fixated by hi-tech companies that your business can deliver rapid profits growth. The question should be how the organisation and employee can construct a relationship in which they serve each other. Instead too frequently it is how work can be organised to serve the task of immediate profit maximisation.
Those in human resources and personnel are in the front line of this tension. They live it daily. One of the difficulties is too few HR directors are part of board room and director-level decision-maki