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Sony Music Australia CEO suddenly exits amid investigation into toxic corporate culture

By | Published on Tuesday 22 June 2021

Sony Music

Sony Music boss Rob Stringer yesterday confirmed that the long-standing CEO of the major’s Australian business, Denis Handlin, was leaving the company with immediate affect.

In a memo to staff, Stringer thanked Handlin for “his extraordinary contribution to the company and its artists”, but stated: “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”.

As that memo was circulated, The Guardian published an article reporting that Handlin’s sudden departure from Sony comes “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”.

Based on interviews with more than 20 former employees at Sony Music Australia, the newspaper reported widespread complaints that “are aimed broadly at the workplace culture rather than specific individuals [including] allegations of sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace”.

Although no specific allegations of sexual harassment were made against Handlin himself, The Guardian said that its interviewees were “critical of the workplace culture at the company while Handlin was CEO”.

Handlin had basically been with Sony Music in Australia for over five decades. He originally joined the Australian Record Company in 1970, which by then was a subsidiary of the CBS music business which Sony subsequently acquired in the late 1980s.

He was CEO of the Australian division even before the Sony acquisition, retaining and expanded on that role throughout the rebrand as Sony Music, the subsequent rebrand as Sony BMG in 2004, and the rebrand back to Sony Music a few years later. He was also a key player within the Australian record industry organisation ARIA, including having various stints as its Chair.

Commenting on the toxic culture at Sony Music Australia under Handlin’s leadership, The Guardian quoted one former promotions manager as saying: “Sony was ruled by fear, like nowhere else I’ve ever worked”. Meanwhile another former employee added: “They hire young people [who] walk into that culture and think that’s normal because it’s all they’ve ever known”.

The newspaper also said that both Handlin and Sony Music Australia declined to respond to a series of detailed questions it sent them. However, after journalists approached Sony Music’s global HQ in New York, the major issued 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 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. Given our ongoing inquiries, we cannot comment further”.

Prior to Stringer’s memo and The Guardian’s article yesterday, there had been reports in the Australian press earlier this month that an investigation was already underway into allegations of “discrimination, bullying and harassment” at Sony’s Australian division, being led by HR execs from the US.

That followed the sacking in April of Sony Music Australia’s VP Commercial Music, Tony Glover, over bullying and harassment allegations, although sources were clear that this new investigation was unrelated to that. Said investigation was seemingly focused on the wider complaints regarding the corporate culture at Sony under Handlin’s leadership.

It remains to be seen what other changes are now made.