Roger Sutton attracted a large amount of public sympathy when he resigned this week. That might have been expected, given that the stage-managed manner of his departure allowed him to insinuate that he had done nothing badly wrong.

Consequently, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive was viewed widely as a victim of political correctness, and the woman who accused him of sexual harassment was advised to lighten up.

For those errant views, the State Services Commission must take the blame. An ill-advised press conference that allowed Mr Sutton to frame his departure in the terms he wanted has been succeeded by a failure to release information that would ensure an informed debate.

The State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie, said yesterday that Mr Sutton had overstepped the mark in telling the press conference he had called women at Cera "honey" and "sweetie" and was accustomed to hugging them. He had been bound by a confidentiality clause, as was the complainant, a senior staff member. That raises the issue of why Mr Sutton was even afforded the opportunity of speaking to the media. The resignation of senior executives, especially in these circumstances, usually involves a short, carefully worded press statement. Foolishly, the commission provided the chance for Mr Sutton to put the best possible gloss on his behaviour.


That was hugely unfair on the complainant. She has abided by the confidentiality clause, leaving only Mr Sutton's version of events in the public domain. Mr Rennie's concern about his breach must be the catalyst for the release of further information, either from the commission or through freeing the complainant from what is now a redundant confidentiality requirement. Only then will people be able to make a reasoned judgment.

The peculiarities do not end there. A commission inquiry found Mr Sutton's conduct did not always meet the standard expected of public service leaders. It did not, however, recommend dismissal. In effect, the behaviour was deemed inappropriate, rather than intentional harassment.

Yet Mr Rennie has said subsequently that Mr Sutton was guilty of "serious misconduct", and that he had been right to resign. If resignation was the right course, it seems axiomatic that dismissal was, in the first instance, the appropriate penalty.

That would have reflected the gravity of Mr Sutton's behaviour, which seems almost incomprehensible for a chief executive in this age. His explanation that "I am who I am" suggested only a glaring absence of self-awareness, with a failure to recognise the impact of his activity. Words have power. They can be used to diminish a person because of their race, age, or gender. Or to undermine their workplace status.

People's happiness is determined to a large extent by what people say to them. At work, no words are more important than those from the boss.

Mr Sutton may not have wanted to cause offence when he used the word "sweetie". While it may be an appropriate word of endearment to a young girl, it is wholly inappropriate in a professional interaction. There, it comes across as condescending and patronising. It remains hard to believe that use of that word, and a hug, were all that gave rise to a serious complaint.

Mr Sutton's resignation represented a belated concession that if he had thought about what he was saying, he would have refrained. And that a hug from a friend is much different from a boss' non-consensual hug. It should not have taken a complaint from a staff member to get him to confront his behaviour.

And a sorry situation should not have been made worse by the State Services Commission's bungling.


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