Revealed: multiple allegations of toxic culture at Sony Music Australia as CEO Denis Handlin leaves | Australian music

The most powerful man in Australian pop music, Denis Handlin, has been removed as head of Sony Music Australia, a week after Guardian Australia approached Sony’s head office with multiple complaints from former employees alleging a toxic work environment at the global company’s Australian operation.

The complaints, which are aimed broadly at the workplace culture rather than specific individuals, include allegations of sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace. They span more than two decades.

None of the former Sony employees Guardian Australia spoke to made any allegations of sexual harassment against Handlin himself, although they were critical of the workplace culture at the company while Handlin was CEO.

Guardian Australia sent a letter outlining the allegations to the head office in New York on 14 June after investigating them for several months.

On Monday a statement was issued by the chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, Rob Stringer, saying Handlin would be leaving “effective immediately”.

Handlin had been the chief executive of Australia’s most successful record label for 37 years and its chairman since 1996. He played a central role in the careers of some of Australia’s most celebrated artists, including John Farnham, Midnight Oil, Silverchair, Men at Work and Human Nature.

John Farnham and Denis Handlin pose for photographers at the 2009 Apra awards in Melbourne
John Farnham and Denis Handlin pose for photographers at the 2009 Apra music awards in Melbourne. Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP

He is the Australian Recording Industry Association’s longest serving board member, an officer of the Order of Australia since 2017 for his services to the industry, and in 2020 was crowned the second most influential person in the Australian music industry.

In 2020, some time before Handlin was due to mark his 50th anniversary in the music industry with a star-studded gala event in Sydney, Stringer sent a 500-word missive to all Sony staffers, praising his Australian CEO’s “passion, dedication, and heart” and describing him as “an all-time legend”.

But just over a year later, the New York head office is now undertaking an investigation into a range of serious complaints about its Sydney operations.

Guardian Australia has spoken to more than 20 former employees who worked at Sony, some who began their careers there as far back as the early 2000s, others who left just a few months ago.

Many said they were still too concerned for their professional futures or too traumatised to tell their stories publicly. Others signed non-disclosure agreements when they left the company. More than a dozen agreed to talk on condition of anonymity.

“Sony was ruled by fear, like nowhere else I’ve ever worked,” a former promotions manager told the Guardian.

A former Sony manager said: “They hire young people [who] walk into that culture and think that’s normal because it’s all they’ve ever known.”

Five of the former employees Guardian Australia spoke to allege that the level of psychological distress they were under by the time they left Sony led them to seek professional treatment for their mental health.

Both Sony Music Australia and Handlin declined to respond to a series of detailed questions from the Guardian. On 16 June Sony Music Entertainment in New York provided the following statement:

We take all allegations from our employees very seriously and investigate them vigorously. These claims only recently came to light and we are examining them expeditiously. Harassment, bullying and other inappropriate behavior is not tolerated by Sony Music at any of our companies and we are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for our employees. Given our ongoing inquiries, we cannot comment further.

‘Just another arse’

It was an evening in early 2014 at the Lord Roberts Hotel, one of the favoured watering holes of Sony executives due to its proximity to the company’s East Sydney headquarters.

Georgia*, a junior label coordinator who asked not to use her real name, alleges that an intoxicated senior male colleague had approached to tell her he would be conducting her upcoming performance review.

“He was very drunk and slurring his words. And he said to me, ‘I can tell you right now, if your performance was based on your physique you’d get top marks’… and as he said it, he looked down my top at my breasts.”

Georgia sought counsel the following Monday from two female colleagues over whether she should report the incident to HR. The advice was unanimous, she says: “HR works to protect the business … You’ll just end up losing your job.”

Leah*, who worked at Sony for five years and left in 2016, says she never saw any repercussions after complaints were made about unacceptable workplace behaviour.

“Most of us just became resigned. There was no way you would take a serious complaint of your own to HR.”

Bridget*, who also left Sony in 2016, alleges she was “arse groped” by a senior male colleague twice, including once in 2014 at an Aria function and again at a staff Christmas party the same year. She told a female colleague.

“She just kind of laughed and was like, ‘Yeah he does that to everyone, it’s so, so annoying.’ I remember thinking at the time, it was kind of comforting that he did it to everyone, because it meant that I wasn’t a target. I was just another arse.”

‘Like pieces of meat’

Five of the women Guardian Australia spoke to recalled a notorious function dubbed “Boatgate” in 2010, when young attractive women in the office suddenly disappeared late one afternoon. They had allegedly been ordered at short notice to attend a harbour cruise put on to entertain a Sony executive from New York.

Sydney Harbour at night
Young attractive women were allegedly ordered to attend a harbour cruise put on to entertain a visiting Sony executive, while more senior female employees weren’t invited. Photograph: Brook Attakorn/Getty Images

Frankie*, who was relatively new to the company in 2010, says she remembers the incident well because it “really rattled” women in the office as they sorted out the invitees from the non-invitees.

“When you looked at the list of who was on the boat, they were all young pretty girls. And a senior woman in marketing … was still there in the office.”

“The marketing manager for these artists wasn’t invited, but the intern who worked three days a week was. So the girls who were invited felt like pieces of meat, and the girls who weren’t invited felt like ugly pigs.”

Claire*, a Sony publicist who left after five years in 2012, says she told her supervisor the next day she wanted to lodge an official complaint. She alleges that although her female supervisor was sympathetic, she made it clear the publicist was likely to find herself unemployed if she pushed the matter further, so she didn’t pursue it.

Christine*, a former Sony employee in a managerial position, says she complained after discovering one of the female juniors in her team was allegedly ordered on to the boat but she and the rest of her team were not invited. She says she told HR that either the entire team attended or nobody did.

The former employees the Guardian spoke to say “Boatgate” was not an isolated incident. Fiona*, a former Sony employee in a managerial position who left after four years in 2017, recalls her young coordinator, who had only been with the company for a few weeks, receiving an invitation to an annual gala event she herself had never been invited to.

“I know how that event gets very drunk and very messy and it goes very late, and they wanted my coordinator who had only been with us for a few weeks to go.”

Fiona took the junior employee aside to warn her but said she felt conflicted.

“As a representative of the company, I felt compromised having to warn a junior that she was entering a work environment that was not as safe as it was supposed to be.”

Georgia says she was never a big drinker but these days she doesn’t drink at all after feeling vulnerable at Sony functions. “You’d be at work events and you’d have mostly men around you – very drunk older men – and you just can’t drink, you have to have your wits about you.”

Frankie recalls attending the Sony conference in Terrigal in 2013, an event that most of the ex-employees the Guardian spoke to recall as a booze-soaked annual long weekend away.

When she was on her way back to her hotel room late one night, three male executives, including two from overseas, entered the lift with her. She alleges that one propositioned her as she pressed the button for her floor.

“He said with this creepy tone, ‘Are you sure you want to get out on that floor?’… and the other men just laughed.”

Hannah*, who worked as a PA to a Sony Music Australia executive for five years in the early 2000s, says she felt her time at the music label was “nightmarish and toxic”.

“I became a drunk at Sony,” she says. “I drank every night. It was the environment. I walked out of Sony in 2009 and I went straight to [Alcoholics Anonymous].”

The pressure to drink

Drinking was not so much encouraged at Sony as required, many of the former employees allege, with some saying that Handlin was heard boasting that Sony had more bars in its East Sydney office than any other music label in the country.

Former staff say the Sony boardroom was furnished with barstools and that staff attending meetings any time from mid-afternoon onward felt they were expected to have a drink in their hand if Handlin was present. At work functions in the evening it was allegedly the organiser’s responsibility to ensure that Handlin himself was never without one.

Close-up of leftover drinks on a table in a conference
‘One time I vomited into my bin at work because I had morning sickness,” she says. “I had to boast that wow, I was just so hungover, because at Sony that was far more acceptable than admitting you were pregnant.’ Photograph: Stockbyte/Getty Images

There was a ritual whenever a new artist was signed, or a Sony artist hit No 1: someone would bring in a platter of shot glasses and a bottle of tequila and staff were expected to drink, some former staff say.

“There wasn’t really an option to say no to that,” Fiona says. “It would be quite damaging from a career perspective … you wouldn’t be seen as part of the Sony family.”

Claire, the publicist who wanted to object to “Boatgate”, says she would tell bar staff to “give me a vodka and lemonade, hold the vodka but put it in a vodka glass”.

Georgia says when she attended a daytime Sony function at Bondi’s Icebergs in 2012, a US rapper called for a shot-taking session. Georgia protested she wasn’t much of a drinker. A male senior manager allegedly made it clear to her that when an international artist and guest of Sony suggested shots, you do the shots.

says the shot, she later learnt, contained between seven and eight different types of alcohol and was served in the tallest shot glass she had ever seen.

Not long after forcing herself to down one, Georgia says she “crawled” out of the establishment. She recalls little else of the rest of the evening other than at some point trying to cross six lanes of traffic on Anzac Parade.

The drinking culture at Sony Music Australia made trying to conceal a pregnancy a challenge, says Sarah*, a former Sony promotions manager who worked there for seven years.

“One time I vomited into my bin at work because I had morning sickness,” she says. “I had to boast that wow, I was just so hungover, because at Sony that was far more acceptable than admitting you were pregnant.”

Intimidating behaviour

The pressure to drink at Sony Music Australia came from senior management, according to every ex-employee Guardian Australia interviewed. Many also said it was seen as part of the job to stay at company functions until Handlin had left.

“It didn’t matter that you still had to be in the office at 8.30 the next morning,” says Sarah. “It could be 3.30am, but your boss is ordering shots, and you know that if you leave, the next day you could be called in and hauled over the coals for it.”

Denis Handlin
Denis Handlin has been the most powerful man in Australian pop music for decades. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Georgia recalls that before Handlin’s arrival at functions, she would show the venue’s bar staff a photograph of him, to ensure a waiter or waitress was at the CEO’s side within seconds of his entrance. She alleges that deviation from this protocol could result in a public display of rage.

Claire says she believes her failure to do this led to her eventual departure from the company.

While in charge of a brief MGMT publicity appearance at Sydney’s Metro venue in 2012, she says she received a warning phone call from the office that Handlin was on his way and was “in a mood”.

She says she believes that Handlin was drunk and alleges that “he just started screaming at me … ‘You’re hopeless at your job, what do you think you’re doing, you should know your job by now’… and there were all the executives in suits standing behind him and not one of them stepped in and tried to intervene.

“All these men just stared at me in silence.”

Outside the venue and in tears after Handlin’s departure, Claire says she was approached by one of those executives who asked casually if she was OK.

“Do not pretend that everything is fine,” she recalls saying. “Do not pretend that any of this is normal, that’s it’s acceptable, because it’s not.”

Not long after that, Claire says she resigned.

“I spent three months in bed after I left, I was so burnt out. I stopped getting my period, I had lost so much weight, I was just so stressed.”

Other former employees also alleged that they witnessed Handlin’s intimidating tirades in meetings.

“We used to have weekly meetings, and it was actually a bit of a sick joke, who is he going to target today?” says Maryanne*, who worked for Sony during most of her 20s. “And then he would just find the smallest thing wrong and just rip someone apart.”

Sarah alleges: “If you didn’t get a song on the radio and he screamed at you and called you a ‘fucking cunt’ you just took it.”

Claire also alleges she was yelled at by Handlin. “[He would say] there was a conga line down the street of people desperate to work at Sony, and that ‘anyone could take your job in a second’.”

Several former employees said they felt they were constantly under threat of being sacked.

Questions over redundancies

Maryanne says she worked for Sony for nine years before taking 12 months of maternity leave in 2011. A few weeks befor
e she was due to return, and with her childcare arrangements just confirmed, she says that she was informed that her position had been made redundant.

Over an eight year period, Sarah says, she knows of eight women, including herself, who were let go either while they were pregnant or on maternity leave.

Guardian Australia was able to make contact with five of the women Sarah identified. All five said they believed their dismissals had been based to some extent on their pregnancy status. Two of the women said they had to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of their redundancy packages.

Christine says she was made redundant when she was five months pregnant.

She says she sought legal advice before deciding the stress of a legal challenge against her dismissal would not be good for her pregnancy. None of the other women made redundant who the Guardian spoke to took any unfair dismissal action.

The company operates without an enterprise bargaining agreement, none of the women held affiliation to any union, and they said they were concerned any complaint could affect their future career prospects in a comparatively small Australian industry.

Fiona, the manager who left in 2017, alleges that she had to make an assistant redundant, “for no particular reason, just because the young woman was not liked”.

“Two weeks later I had a new assistant, so it was a non-genuine redundancy.”

Sarah said she was encouraged to accept a redundancy package shortly before going on maternity leave because, she was told, it was unlikely her job would still exist upon her return, due to commercial reasons relating to the emerging digital market.

She says the employee who replaced her held the same role and job title for the next five years.

With the exception of one former employee, everyone the Guardian spoke to had no complaints about the payouts they received.

‘Like working in the 1980s’

In recent years, Sony Music Australia has been a company in quiet crisis. In April it sacked one of its most senior executives, the vice-president of commercial music Tony Glover, after an internal company investigation found he had bullied and harassed multiple staff members. He had been with the company since it merged with BMG in 2004.

The dismissal took the former employees Guardian Australia spoke to by surprise: Sony had finally taken action against a senior male employee at the Australian arm of the company after complaints about similar behaviour by others at the company over years appeared to have been ignored. In reports at the time, Glover denied ever touching staff members inappropriately. “There’s me and there’s the complainants and I guess the amount of complainants outweighed my word,” he was reported as saying. “I had never been sanctioned before, [the investigation] was a complete surprise. I think I am a decent person, a loyal person.”

On 1 February this year Sony Music Australia announced four female promotions to senior levels “effective immediately”. Three weeks later it announced a further four promotions of female staff.

Some in the industry were cynical – the flurry of promotions came at a time the company was investigating complaints from former employees about Sony Music Australia’s workplace culture.

“It’s so bloody obvious to all of us who have worked there that they’ve just done it to make themselves look good,” Maryanne says. “There hasn’t been any female promotions like that for years… and it wasn’t for lack of female talent within that company. There were so many amazing women that worked there.

“But it was just such a boys’ club, there was only ever one woman on the [executive] team, seriously, it was like working in the 1980s or worse.”

James*, a longstanding music industry executive who also served on the Aria board with Handlin for six years, said it was now up to Sony Music’s head office in New York to take action.

New York has been aware of complaints about “toxic … work practices since at least the mid-1990s”, he alleges.

“They know about the tequila shots in the meetings, the boat cruises, the pretty girls all lined up or moved to the front, the verbal abuse, the NDAs.

“But head office goes, ‘Well, that’s just Australia, as long as the targets are being met, and the hits are being made.’”

At 10.30 on Monday morning, Stringer sent the following statement to all staff at Sony’s Australian and New Zealand offices, from the company’s global headquarters in New York:

I am writing to let you know that Denis Handlin will be leaving Sony Music Entertainment after more than 50 years with the Company, effective immediately.

It is time for a change in leadership and I will be making further announcements in terms of the new direction of our business in Australia and New Zealand in due course.

My team and I will be speaking further to your team leaders about this process throughout the week, but at this point I wanted to let everyone know this news at the same time.

We thank Denis for his extraordinary contribution to the Company and its artists over his long career in the Australian and New Zealand music industry.

Until Monday, Denis Handlin was the longest serving employee in the global Sony organisation.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Do you have any more information? If so, please contact [email protected]

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