"Hi honey, I'm home ... and I might be here for a while."

Who knows what Roger Sutton, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) boss, told his wife about the events that led to his resignation this week. We do not know the details of those events.

Sutton resigned as Cera chief executive this week after the State Services Commission investigated a complaint that he harassed a senior female staffer. The allegations centred around hugs, inappropriate jokes and comments.

His wife and mother of his three children walked hand in hand with her husband into the press conference this week where he announced his resignation of his "own free choice".


NZME. reported that Ms Malcolm was shocked.

"It's been hideous. He's a really good man," she said. "Why have his hugs and jokes been misinterpreted? I have no idea. But he's a touchy-feely person."

Sutton himself apologised.

"Hugs, jokes ... I've hurt somebody with that behaviour and I'm very, very sorry about that," he said. "But I am who I am. I have called women 'honey' and 'sweetie', and that is wrong. That's a sexist thing to do, and I'm really sorry."

Former Cera employee Tina Nixon criticised Sutton's apology as a "PR snow job". She should know about snow jobs. She was a former communications adviser at the organisation.

Further allegations reported in the Christchurch press alleged there was more to it than honey and a hug, with allegations reported that young female staff were allegedly asked if they'd participate in "visible G-string Friday", there were "unwanted, body-press hugs", and the complainant had been asked whom she considered "hot" and would like to have sex with.

The inquiry upheld the complaint but State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie found the charges did not warrant a sacking.

We do not know the details of the seven-week State Services Commission investigation. Nor do we know the details of the hugs and the jokes. They too remain confidential.


In my view we should be told.

For as it stands, the only person revealed who has had their career - and reputation - jeopardised is Sutton.

Sutton's resignation has highlighted the thorny issue of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace.

While any woman who feels they are being sexually harassed should certainly be encouraged to make a complaint, what some believe is harassment, others may not.

The sexual harassment law under the Human Rights Act 1993 talks about the unlawfulness of any person to make a request for "sexual intercourse, sexual contact, or other form of sexual activity which contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment".

This part is clear. If your boss asks you for a grope in the elevator in return for a day off Christmas shopping if you oblige, or puts you on permanent kitchen duty if you don't, that's sexual harassment.

Obviously that is ridiculously simplistic. But there are many nuances of sexual harassment in the work force. The law goes on to mention "the use of language ... visual material or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, to subject any other person to behaviour that is unwelcome or offensive ... that it has a detrimental effect on that person".

Here is where the law becomes complex. What is exactly "unwelcome and offensive" to one, might be perfectly fine to another. Where does one draw a line? Different personality types have different norms and tolerance levels. Cultural differences come into play too.

This week I interviewed a Santa who hails from my home town of Liverpool. He told me how when he first moved to Tauranga he remembers saying "thanks, love" to a woman in a shop. He told me how she retorted angrily, "Who are you calling love? I'm not your love".

But "love" is a common term in Liverpool. Head to Glasgow and you may be asked "Do you want that pizza deep-fried, hen?"

In the midlands of England, it's "duck". In the North East you will be "pet". When I worked as a financial journalist in London, bond traders from Essex would call me "babes". In London you would be "princess" or "darling".

Here in Tauranga there are similar terms, if a little more masculine. A former male colleague always called me "buddy", and another "mate". A female colleague calls me "bro".

I don't mind these names. I find them endearing rather than demeaning.

It is not the name that is important but the context. My Australian friend calls me darl and it's cute. But once on a Qantas flight from Sydney, I asked if I could be upgraded into a better seat due to being pregnant. When told abruptly by the (female) flight attendant "you'll be lucky darl", I thought it condescending. But not so much I was going to firestart a federal investigation.

Really I find that any professional woman who cries sexual harassment over being called sweetie or honey is an embarrassment to other professional women. More seriously, such a complaint makes a mockery of those who are really the victims of serious sexual harassment.

If someone calls you "honey" and you don't like it, why not just politely but firmly take them aside and tell them not to?

Are we so socially immature and fragile that we cannot confront another human being over a simple issue like this without instigating a tribunal?

Of course, if then the behaviour does not desist then there is the option of making it more formal. Or just start talking loudly about your menstruation issues and most men will back off by a country mile. Or say you are looking for commitment, which will have the same effect.

But I bet in 99 per cent of cases the offence would just stop by addressing it professionally and directly. In many cases the person would have no idea that they were being offensive.

Same with hugs. Back to my Liverpool home - give an unwelcome hug to a Scouse girl and you might get a Liverpool Kiss (also known as a head butt) back.

Some people are huggers, and some are not. In magazine land where I work, there are hugs a plenty. Air kisses too. In a more sober environment of finance or offices, work hugs may not be appropriate. I cannot comprehend exactly what is an unwelcome hug. If someone approaches for a hug and you don't want to, turn away. And if they don't get the message a sharp stiletto on their toe works wonders.

It is a hard balance at work between being true to oneself, and being professional. Personally I am not a big fan of bureaucracy and over formality. But Roger Sutton was in a high-profile role in the public service. His wife told NZME., "I think he kind of forgot that he was the leader of the public service and he's too informal ... but that's who he is. That's what makes him amazing, and why his staff, the Cera staff, love him."

One could argue that people in leadership roles are expected to rein in their own personalities and be able to tune into the people they manage.

While terms of endearment from colleagues might be acceptable, they are inappropriate from a boss. Especially from chief executives.

Still, it is concerning for future gender relations in the workplace if people are so afraid that fellow employees will become litigious if they say the slightest thing to cause offence.

The Sutton saga has made public office seem unbearably stuffy and PC. We need more leaders with flair and creativity in public office. Fear of over-zealous employment inquiries may deter good candidates.

No-one wants office sleazes - but nor do we need grey robots. It doesn't make for a pleasant or productive working environment if no-one can make jokes or banter with colleagues.

It is also a pity as there are so many more important battles for women in the workplace such as issues over equal pay, flexible hours and assistance with childcare.

So if the State Services Commission wants this to be treated seriously, reveal the full details and only then can we make a reasoned judgment.

Or at least tell us some of Sutton's jokes, because as one poster on David Farrar's Kiwiblog quipped, any joke that is worth losing your job over might just be funny.