UPDATED: Sony Music’s top executives were informed of abusive behavior by the company’s long-running Australian chief, Dennis Handlin, more than two decades before he stepped down earlier this year, according to a detailed report by the country’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation that aired Sunday.
Handlin — one of the most powerful executives in the country’s music business, who was also chairman of the Australian Recording Industry Association and an Officer of the Order of Australia — and four other top Sony executives left the company earlier this year in the wake of a hard-hitting report called “Beneath the Glass Ceiling” on rampant, long-standing abusive behavior throughout the country’s music industry, including the other major labels.
While much of the information in Sunday’s report had been previously reported, many details were new, including a Sony in-house parody video featuring Handlin dressed as Adolf Hitler in which he raps proudly about the company’s aggressive culture.
The report, which aired on ABC’s “Four Corners” show, states that top Sony Music executives in New York were informed of Handlin’s behavior in 1998 after an incident for which he suspended for a period of time but was then reinstated and became more abusive than ever. At the time Sony Music was under the leadership of Tommy Mottola; Sony Music has had several changes of leadership in the intervening years, with current chairman Rob Stringer taking the helm in 2017.
Contacted by Variety, a Sony rep sent the following statement on Monday: “We take all allegations of bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behavior from our employees very seriously and investigate them vigorously. Only recently did claims surface and we are examining them expeditiously. 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 has been reviewing them.”
While reps declined further comment, a source within the company stressed that Sony Music’s top executives had not received any further reports regarding abusive behavior in its Australian office until earlier this year. In late June, Stringer announced that Handlin stepped down on June 25 after 51 years at the company, 37 of which he was the chief executive and chairman.
However, according to the report, the abusive culture that Handlin instilled at the company — aspects of which were widespread in the country’s music industry — was widely known throughout the Australian company and industry. “Four Corners,” citing interviews with more than 100 current and former Sony employees as part of an investigation into “decades of systemic bullying, discrimination and misconduct at the company under Handlin’s toxic regime,” claims that “the company’s global head office knew about the alleged abuse but failed to protect its Australian staff for almost 40 years.”
Handlin’s second-in-command, Sony Music Australia’s former finance director, Alan Terrey, told the outlet, “The thing that has upset most of us … was that [Sony] New York said, ‘Oh, we just found out about this problem, this has just come to light’,” Terrey said. That’s such a load of hogwash.”
Terrey said the company’s top executives were routinely singled out by Handlin and humiliated. “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 behavior,” 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.”
Longtime company executive Eleanor McKay said she witnessed widespread bullying. “The kindest thing I could say about Denis was that he was sort of an equal opportunity abuser,” she said. “He was as mean to men as he was to women.”
However, another executive, former senior manager Matthew McQuade, said the company’s workplace tolerated “laddish language” and objectifying women.
“I was standing with Denis and he started making sexual comments about an employee I’d just hired … breasts, physique, those sorts of things,” McQuade said. “Four Corners” stated it had confirmed that at least seven women were laid off while on maternity leave over a six-year period up to 2013; all were paid cash settlements.
In a statement to “Four Corners,” Handlin said, “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. At any time I was made aware of this sort of behavior I took action to ensure that it was stopped and didn’t occur again.” The report states that by the late 1990s, Handlin’s leadership had resulted in annual staff turnover of up to 50 per cent.
Human resources head Greg Lockhart told “Four Corners” he reported Handlin’s behavior to Sony Music’s global head office in New York multiple times throughout the 1990s, but his concerns were ignored until June 1998, when a visiting U.S. executive also reported Handlin’s conduct. After a request from the global office, Lockhart and three other executives, including Terry, wrote a report which read in part, “Working for Denis in effect means you do not work for Sony Music. You are not a director or manager: you are a servant ‘rewarded’ so long as you serve his, and only his purpose. Life revolves totally around Denis and the ‘cult’ of his personality,” the report stated.
In the report, “common, everyday occurrences” involving Handlin included:
He is abusive daily
Goes into frequent mad rages of screaming and bullying
Purposely sets out to destroy people for power
Constantly humiliates staff in meetings
Enjoys intimidating staff
Cannot treat women as equals
Two pages of the report were dedicated to concerns about Handlin’s drinking habits, including that he was “highly abusive and aggressive to Sony staff and others when he’s drunk.”
Lockhart detailed how Handlin had ordered him to sack people for “not smiling at him”, “not liking the physical look of someone” or “for being pregnant.” He also said, “Such is the level of Denis’ obsession with total control that I have been instructed on a dozen different occasions to have personnel followed by private detectives,” Lockhart wrote.
Handlin was suspended and an investigation was then launched with 10 Australian executives flown to New York for interviews about their experiences, but three months later Handlin returned to his post — for another two decades. Nine of the 10 executives involved in the complaint to Sony’s head office left the Australian company within four years.
Lockhart said he was unconvinced by senior management’s claims of ignorance about Handlin’s behavior and the Australian company’s culture.
“For them to just say, ‘Oh, we found out about it a month ago or two months ago,’ it’s just implausible,” he said. Contacted by Variety, a Sony music source disputed Lockhart’s claims, reiterating that the company is “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.”