More than 100 current and former employees of Sony Music Australia were interviewed for the ABC’s upcoming Four Corners investigation on their experiences working under Denis Handlin, the label’s longtime CEO who was abruptly dismissed in June.
Airing tonight (October 11) at 8.30pm, the programme is set to air explosive claims of a culture of bullying, discrimination and misconduct at the label under Handlin’s 37-year term as CEO.
This morning, the ABC published an accompanying article by Four Corners reporters Grace Tobin and Lucy Carter as well as producer Ali Russell containing interviews with some of former Sony staff. Former finance director Alan Terrey was quoted as saying anyone who worked below Handlin “were basically puppets and he pulled all the strings and he demanded his actions to be followed”.
“His day-to-day dealings with people were pretty much at the executive level so they’re the people who really copped the abuse and the toxic behaviour,” he said.
“Occasionally, he would bring some lower minion into a board meeting and absolutely destroy them in front of his superior.
“But it was meted out to everybody, nobody escaped.”
Four Corners also reports that at least seven women were made redundant at Sony Music Australia while on maternity leave over a six-year period up to 2013, and paid cash settlements.
In a statement to Four Corners, Handlin wrote: “I have always provided support and encouragement to women in the industry and personally championed diversity”.
“I would never tolerate treating women in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner,” he said. “At any time I was made aware of this sort of behaviour I took action to ensure that it was stopped and didn’t occur again.”
In a statement shared by Four Corners, a spokesperson from Sony Music Entertainment said: “We take all allegations of bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behaviour from our employees very seriously and investigate them vigorously.
“Only recently did claims surface and we are examining them expeditiously.”
However, according to Four Corners, executives in New York have reportedly been aware of Handlin’s conduct since the 1990s, with then-Australian human resources head Greg Lockhart making multiple complaints about Handlin over the decade.
Toward the end of the decade, Terrey, Lockhart and two other executives were reportedly asked to write a report about Handlin’s behaviour. The report outlined examples of “frequent mad rages of screaming and bullying”, humiliating and intimidating staff, and “purposely [setting] out to destroy people for power”, Four Corners reports.
Eleanor McKay, who worked as a secretary for the company, referred to Handlin as an “equal opportunity abuser”, noting that was the kindest thing she could say about him.
“He was as mean to men as he was to women,” she said.
McKay also outlined Handlin’s leadership approach when it came to Sony’s major competitors. “I remember in the sales meetings he’d get everyone to chant, ‘Fuck EMI. Fuck Warner’,” she said, “It wasn’t enough to go, ‘We’re great, we’re the best’, it’s like, ‘Everybody else is shit’.”
“I think in an industry that tolerates bad behaviour … he was a star performer,” she continued.
“When you actually shock people in music, you’re behaving pretty badly.”
Following the report, 10 Australian executives were flown to New York to contribute to an investigation conducted by the head office. Handlin was suspended in light of the investigation but returned to Sony Music Australia three months later, remaining at its helm for two more decades.
When Handlin was dismissed in June, ending his over 50 years working for Sony, global CEO Rob Stringer told staff in an email “it is time for a change in leadership”. The label has yet to announce a replacement for Handlin, though at ARIA his role as Chairman has been filled by Natalie Waller.
Handlin’s exit from the role came a week after reports that Sony Music’s head office in the United States was investigating allegations of discrimination, bullying and harassment in the Australian office.
In September, Handlin issued his first public statement since his dismissal, responding to allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate workplace behaviour at Sony Music Australia that were reported by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian, among other publications. Though the incidents were alleged to have occured during Handlin’s tenure at the label, no allegations were levelled at him.
Handlin said in a statement to the podcast Everybody Knows that while he was CEO of the label, he had engaged external legal counsel and advisers to conduct independent inquiries into allegations of sexual misconduct, and ensured that survivors were provided counselling.