None of us know the truth of what happened between Roger Sutton and "Complainant A", yet that hasn't stopped many wondering what the resignation of the CERA chief means for the state of gender relations in the workplace in New Zealand.

Mr Sutton did not do something so bad that it would have warranted his sacking - an independent inquiry decided - so what we are left with is, on balance, he crossed a line, probably more than once. His daft actions, most probably, have cost him some of his reputation and his job. Let us hope that was a fair outcome, because we will likely never know for sure.

That said, it is baffling that someone hired into a job that requires sustained good judgement in the modern era could think using the words "honey" or "sweetie" is anything other than hugely unwise - and dirty jokes evoke nothing so much as David Brent.

'I've called women honey, and that is wrong' - CERA boss Roger Sutton quits
'You're telling the story, honey' - Sutton interview from the archive


In today's corporate environment, these behaviours mark a boss out as being eccentric, old fashioned, and somewhat rare. But even though the overt stuff isn't as common, it doesn't mean that workplace sexism doesn't exist - of course it does. It has simply become more subtle: it's being expressed in things like the scepticism around the long term plans of women of childbearing age. The inflexibility of work arrangements. The judgement around women with traits seen as "not very feminine".

And, finally, of course, the inequity of pay between men and women, which can be definitively quantified.

Women have fought these battles by addressing the tone of the workplace, and they have largely won - at least legally. It's not "PC gone mad", but the response of a group that can now, finally, use its own voice to maximum effect. And, men do not suffer from a more civil workplace. Recent studies reported in the Guardian from Cornell University suggest the more PC a workplace is, the more creative it is. And there's not yet been a mass movement of males cowering in fear about each utterance, terrified a "feminazi" will come and tie their testicles into knots if the wrong words slip out. That I've heard about.

WATCH: Roger Sutton explains why he quit

CERA chief has resigned following a sexual harassment complaint against him, admitting his actions were hurtful but he never meant any harm. State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie said the commission had carried out an investigation into Mr Sutton's conduct following a complaint from a Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) staff member. The allegations, which surfaced at the weekend, accused Mr Sutton of harassing a senior female staffer. Sutton is alleged to have made inappropriate jokes and comments towards the woman, as well as giving her a hug.

Still, surely there are a few rules of thumb suggested by good old common sense. First, never say something to a woman in the workplace that you would not say to a straight man (if you were also a straight man, if you get what I mean) - so "Andrew, that bulge in your pants is very fetching today" or "Trevor, sweetie, get me a coffee with milk and two sugars please darling?" are probably non-starters. "Mike, I really like the cut of that suit" , or a simple "well done" instead of a lingering bear hug, are likely fine.

Generally keeping a bit of a distance from underlings, especially in a social setting, is probably also a good idea, although sadly not followed by many a Kiwi boss who likes to get munted with staff of a Friday night. It happens too much, with often disastrous results.

Is Roger Sutton's experience a wakeup call? Yes, in the sense that it is an example (to the outside at least) where a man in power who was thought to do wrong apologised and stepped down offering no excuses.

We may see too many examples of sexist language in the workplace still, but we certainly never seem to see the buck stop anywhere, so from that perspective, it is a bit like a pleasant, but not in any way unseemly, slap upside the head.