The young account exec drags himself into the office after hours, disheveled and tired, returning from a long business trip. His phone message light flashes red. It's his boss' voice: "Welcome back, Brad."

Seems Brad sold a major account while he was away. To show the company's gratitude, Brad's boss left two round-trip tickets to Hawaii in his top desk drawer. "There's one more trip we'd like you to take, Brad . . . "

The American Airlines television ad is the stuff of office daydreaming. But what about in the real corporate world?

Joe Weinberg, an account executive at Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt, the Dallas firm that created the Brad ad, says it is rated "one of the most well-liked airline spots" because it is believable in today's corporate environment -- and not because it is a pleasant fantasy. "We tried to empathize with the young executive and associate the airline with the types of things the business person goes through each day," says Weinberg.

Indeed, Weinberg recently got a telephone call from a young engineering executive in Seattle, named Brad, whose company took its cue from the ad when he closed a big deal: The real-life Brad got two round-trip tickets to Hawaii, too.

But when corporate life isn't imitating advertisements, is there room for benevolence in bottom-line thinking? Or do nice companies finish last? It depends on "how completely corporate management understands the strategic dimensions of its moral preferences," says Lawrence G. Lavengood, professor of business history and of business policy and environment at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

Lavengood says the Brad ad "reflects a very sizable slice of corporate America -- if not in round trips to Hawaii, then certainly in other kinds of rewards." But he cautions that corporate benevolence is generally semantic hodgepodge, "if by benevolence we mean the extension of benefits that are not immediately called for by the rock-bottom requirements of the job."

Corporate acts that are charitable or kindly often have ulterior motives, though Lavengood prefers to call it "strategy" and says it is good management -- good for the beneficiaries and, invariably, good for the company.

"In order to remain profitable, stable and productive," says Lavengood, "some firms go beyond what other firms do. Benevolence becomes a strategic choice. A firm might recognize that in dealing with a certain population, in meeting environmental requirements or living in a community, it is strategically necessary to behave in a certain way."

In other words, the boss who conjured up two tickets to Hawaii for Brad wasn't so much showing gratitude as he was "strategically cultivating that kind of performance" -- in a baser form, dangling a carrot strung at the end of a stick.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, says Lavengood. If profit rationale didn't underwrite improvements in the work arena, there would be few improvements. But "between that strategic dimension and what we might call the moral duty," he says, "I do think that business management today has got to do some profound thinking about the difference."

Some observers of what is fashionably called "corporate culture" say more companies are thinking about -- if not always acting on -- that difference. The result for those that act positively? Better public image. Happier workers. But better profit margin?

"That depends on how much being nice is part of a well-conceived plan of management," says Lavengood. "If it is whimsical or overly extravagant, of course, a nice firm is going to finish last. But if being nice is managed well with everything else, then everything, including profits, is going to be better."

When Milton Moskowitz, Robert Levering and Michael Katz set out to find the best 100 companies in America from the standpoint of employes three years ago, they searched for "the special feeling that exists where management and employes work together rather than square off in 'we versus they' confrontations." What they found caused mixed emotions.

"Most companies have gotten better, but they have been forced into that mode," says Moskowitz, who, since 1968, had been "looking at companies through that lens" of social responsibility in his Business in Society newsletter and in other publications. But when he and his coauthors published their 1984 best seller, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America (Plume, $8.95), they touched off a minor upheaval.

Granted, the idea of ranking top corporations was not new. But rating them on "the human condition inside the company" had, until then, rarely been done -- and never so extensively. Once the book was released, the authors heard protests from many corporations left off the list, and the chosen ones were avalanched by re'sume's and media praise. American business and the public now had a yardstick of corporate social consciousness.

"Corporate America must assume a pattern of behavior that reflects prevailing social values, or it doesn't manage very well," says Lavengood. "Whether to respond or not to respond is not a choice. How to respond is the corporation's only choice."

Many of the companies unworthy of the Best 100 list, says Moskowitz, harbored an outdated attitude that views employes, particularly lower rank ones, as "just a cost of labor . . . as a commodity like any other thing that they're buying."

But far more telling of the clash between benevolence and the bottom line were those companies bounced from the list during revisions of the hardback for the paperback. "The companies on our roster are good for their people in bad times as well as in good times," says Moskowitz. Six of the original 100 were replaced for not meeting that standard.

Among those cut was Philip Morris. According to Moskowitz, the tobacco giant got tough on its Miller beer subsidiary when sales plunged in 1984, smashing a strike at its brewery in Milwaukee, reducing its Miller workforce by 8 percent, never opening a brewery it built in Ohio and instituting an across-the-board 7 percent cut in personnel in the New York headquarters office -- all none too gently.

Walt Disney Productions and Merck, the highly profitable pharmaceutical company, both were erased from the list by unionized strikes that caused "a lot of bitterness among their employes." When Moskowitz returned to Disneyland several months after the strike, he discovered that employes felt "the management . . . betrayed the ideals of founder Walt Disney. Nearly all said they felt Disney had lost 'the family touch' and has become overly concerned with making money . . . "

But others caught in the profit crunch managed better. When Levi Strauss closed 19 plants and reduced its payroll by about 5,000 employes soon after the hardback edition came out, says Moskowitz, the company went to "extraordinary lengths to soften the blows" to affected workers. Levi Strauss stayed on the revised softcover list.

Another case: When Control Data Corp. was the fourth largest computer manufacturer and computer service business in the country in 1984, it boasted revenues of $5 billion and was on almost everyone's Best Something list. Moskowitz ranked it in his 100 Best. Its efforts to promote women into upper management landed it on Savvy magazine's Best Places for Women to Work list and as recent as this month, in the 30 Best Companies for Working Mothers listed in Working Mother magazine.

And it was one of eight companies named two years ago in a survey conducted by University of Southern California management professor James O'Toole, which asked business-savvy people nationwide, "Where would you want to work if you could work anywhere?"

A leader among socially responsible corporations for three decades, Control Data's performance mirrored what O'Toole found to be the common trappings of innovative companies: employe stock ownership, job security, lifelong training, custom benefits for individuals, incentive pay, democratization in the workplace and stakeholder status for unions when applicable.

Legendary for its employe training programs, other Control Data services for workers range from 24-hour counseling (personal, marital, health, drug and alcohol, and financial) to a discount buying program on items such as major appliances, automobiles and eyeglasses, to a "Stay Well" health program providing stress management, stop-smoking assistance, aerobics classes and discounts on local health club memberships.

So how did Control Data nose-dive this year from annual respectability to No. 287 out of 292 on Fortune magazine's America's Most Admired Corporations list? In a word: profits. But Control Data's financial loss weighed heavily because Fortune polls "8,000 executives, outside directors and financial analysts," not employes.

Misreading the impact of personal computers on manufacturing and services business, the company lost $270 million in the first three quarters of 1985.

Since its fall, however, Control Data has tried to minimize the difficulties of layoffs of about 4,000 workers and has instituted "some new policies that are innovative and reinforce Control Data's leadership position in handling personnel," according to Maureen Rangen, Control Data media relations specialist.

Recently, the company replaced its traditional sick leave benefit with a personal days-off benefit, and this month, the company gave each employe 10 shares of stock (valued at about $220) "as a thank you," says Rangen. "Everybody has rolled up his sleeves and worked harder to turn this around."

While Mark Dowie says he doesn't "admire companies that lose money," he adds that, unlike Control Data, even the best that do lose money often wind up being "good guys falling from grace."

An investigative journalist in California who covers the corporate sector, Dowie this year coauthored yet another search for excellence -- a Best and Worst of American Business list for Mother Jones magazine.

He says that usually "corporations lose their luster when they lose their profit," but his criteria for the Best of American Business weighs heavily on quality in product, management of workplace, policy toward the environment and the community, and style of ownership. Not just profit.

"In our rankings, we thought it was more important how a company treated its workers than how it treated its consumers, and more important how a company treated its consumers than how it treated its shareholders," says Dowie. He thinks the results, which reflected not only "the values and demands of investors and owners but also of workers, consumers and folks downwind of the factory," are an indicator of corporate things to come.

"I think what is happening in the corporate sector is that the values that occurred somewhat romantically during the '60s and were washed over in the '70s are now coming into practice in the '80s, because those people are now taking control in the workplace," says Dowie. "I'm optimistic about capitalism's ability to reform itself."