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Sony Music ignored formal complaints about toxic culture at its Australian division as far back as 1998, new report claims

By | Published on Monday 28 June 2021

Sony Music

Following last week’s sudden departure of Sony Music Australia boss Denis Handlin, The Guardian has published a new report claiming that – not only was it widely known in the Australian music industry that Handlin’s Sony division had a toxic corporate culture – but the major formally investigated complaints about it more than two decades ago.

However, no action was taken and, seemingly, working practices at Sony Music’s Australian business went unchanged.

Sony Music last week announced that Handlin – who had run its Australian division for decades – was leaving the company with immediate effect.

The announcement coincided with an initial report from The Guardian – based on interviews with more than 20 former employees at Sony Music Australia – which included allegations of sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace.

Handlin himself was not accused of harassment, however many of the interviewees were critical of the outgoing CEO for overseeing such a toxic working environment.

In a new report, the newspaper says that back in 1998 the major’s New York HQ questioned ten executives from its Australian division following serious complaints about bullying and alcohol abuse at its Sydney office. Those execs were flown to the US to discuss the complaints.

Around about the same time Handlin took a few months off which, a Billboard report from 1999 noted, led to much speculation about his future at the company. However, after his return the Sony Music Australia chief told the US trade mag that he’d been away from the business because he had been “run down, due to a punishing work ethic and an obsession with Sony’s performance”. His bosses in New York had been “very supportive”, he added.

Commenting on the 1998 investigation, a former exec – who was among those interviewed as part of it – is quoted by The Guardian in its new article as saying: “New York was alerted back in 1998 to problems with Handlin’s management style, resulting in him being suspended for about three months. It was common knowledge in the music industry at the time”.

“On the day it was announced he was coming back, there was a sense of grievance and mistrust and let down that New York had allowed this guy back in the company”, another former employee told the paper. “[Handlin] went through a process of apologies to senior executives around the country … it was pathetic because we all knew it wouldn’t last”.

Reacting to The Guardian’s initial report on its Australian division last week, Sony Music’s HQ said: “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 behaviour 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”.

However, one of the ex-staff members speaking to paper has said: “New York may be seen to be doing the right thing now, but they’ve known about Denis and the culture in Sydney for a very long time, and could have brought it to a head over 20 years ago. They have a lot to answer for”.

Responding to the latest Guardian report, Handlin himself says that some of the information provided to the newspaper regarding the 1998 investigation is “simply incorrect”, adding “there was a full and lengthy inquiry at the time that saw me reinstated”.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson at Sony HQ adds: “We are not in a position to comment further on allegations concerning matters which occurred over 20 years ago, particularly given that the persons involved at that time are no longer at the company. To the extent these matters have been raised, Sony Music will be reviewing them”.

The new investigation into the corporate culture at Sony Music Australia continues, with two more senior execs there, Mark Stebnicki and Handlin’s son Pat, reportedly now on indefinite leave. Like Handlin Senior, neither Stebnicki nor Handlin Junior have been directly accused of harassment.

In addition to the ongoing internal investigation at Sony Music Australia, a Sydney-based law firm last week said that it was now talking to a number of former employees at the major about possible legal action.