When many of Australia’s most famous singers clutched ARIA awards and stepped up to the podium there was one man whose praises they would sing.
As Sony Music chief executive, chairman of the ARIA board, an Officer of the Order of Australia, he was one of the most powerful men in Australian music.
But inside Sony Music, he ruled with fear and intimidation.
Four Corners has spoken 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.
Former senior Sony staff are now breaking ranks, detailing for the first time how the company’s global head office knew about the alleged abuse but failed to protect its Australian staff for almost 40 years.
Staff were ‘puppets and he pulled the strings’
Handlin was Sony Music’s longest-serving employee in the world, having started in the mailroom in 1970 before rising through the ranks to become Australian chief executive and chairman.
His remarkable 37-year tenure at the top ended abruptly on June 21.
Sony Music’s global head office announced it was investigating the “workplace culture” but insisted Handlin was only departing because it was “time for a change of leadership”.
The statement infuriated Sony Music Australia’s former finance director, Alan Terrey.
“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.”
Handlin’s second-in-command for 14 years, Terrey has described to Four Corners the treatment he and other employees endured throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“Denis got consumed by power. No question about it,” he said.
“It was his company. It was his train set. And anyone below him, including myself as 2IC, were basically puppets and he pulled all the strings and he demanded his actions to be followed.”
Terrey said Sony’s team of 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 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.”
‘An equal opportunity abuser’
Eleanor McKay joined the company in 1986, when it was still known as CBS Records.
As a secretary, she said she witnessed Handlin bully her superiors and colleagues.
“The kindest thing I could say about Denis was that he was sort of an equal opportunity abuser,” McKay said.
“He was as mean to men as he was to women.”
McKay said Handlin promoted an aggressive, win at all costs mentality within the team.
“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’.”
Handlin appeared to be proud of his ruthless management style.
In an internal staff video, obtained by Four Corners, he is seen dressed as Adolf Hitler while parodying a Mel Brooks comedy song.
The eight-minute skit shows Handlin rapping and making light of the competitive company culture.
“I think in an industry that tolerates bad behaviour … he was a star performer,” McKay said.
“When you actually shock people in music, you’re behaving pretty badly.”
‘These people were traumatised’
By the late 1990s, Denis Handlin’s leadership had become so volatile that annual staff turnover at Sony Music Australia was running at up to 50 per cent.
As the head of human resources, it was Greg Lockhart’s job to clean up and cover up Handlin’s abuses.
“There would be someone every day that I would have to put back together again from some drama that Denis had created the night before or the day before,” he told Four Corners.
“Putting people back together again became a full-time job for me.
“These people were traumatised.”
Lockhart said he reported Handlin’s behaviour to Sony Music’s global head office in New York multiple times throughout the 1990s, but his concerns were ignored.
Sony Music’s head office finally paid attention in June 1998 when an executive, brought over from the US, also reported Handlin’s conduct.
Terrey said he received a phone call from a superior in New York, wanting to know what it was like working for Handlin.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it to you in two words: utterly miserable’.”
Lockhart said Sony Music’s international president asked him to write a report about Handlin’s behaviour. It was co-authored with three other executives including Terrey.
The document, which has never been published, began with the executives’ attempt to illustrate the depth of what they were dealing with behind the scenes.
“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.
The executives went on to outline specific examples of Handlin’s management style and behaviour, including “common, everyday occurrences” such as:
- 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”.
As the head of HR, 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”.
Handlin’s orders didn’t end there.
“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.
Initially, Sony Music’s global head office appeared to take the issues seriously. Handlin was suspended.
An investigation was then launched with 10 Australian executives flown to New York for one-on-one interviews about their experiences.
But three months into the suspension, a decision was handed down by the global head office that shocked staff.
Their chief executive was returning.
Devastated by the decision, Alan Terrey walked away.
“No amount of money could have enticed me to go back,” he said.
“I was in charge of my life again.”
Nine of the 10 executives involved in the complaint to Sony’s head office left the Australian company within four years.
But Handlin emerged from the turmoil more powerful than ever.
The industry elected him as chairman of the ARIA board and his reign at Sony Music Australia would continue for another two decades.
“He’d gone through this typhoon and [survived]. I think he must’ve felt he was untouchable,” Terrey said.
‘He set the tone’
Handlin wielded immense power within the company and the music industry.
Publicly, he championed and fostered young female artists like Delta Goodrem.
But inside Sony Music, female employees were treated very differently.
Former senior manager Matthew McQuade said there was a workplace culture where “laddish language” and objectifying women was accepted.
“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.
“Because of the position of power, it allowed people who wanted to have that laddish view of life the free rein to do it.
“There were no consequences for doing it because ultimately one person held all the power. He set the tone.”
Discrimination against women was particularly blatant when employees fell pregnant.
Four Corners has confirmed at least seven women were made redundant while on maternity leave over a six-year period up to 2013.
They were all paid cash settlements.
In a statement to Four Corners, Denis 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 behaviour I took action to ensure that it was stopped and didn’t occur again.”
A scandal around Sony Music’s toxic culture started building late last year when a social media account called Beneath The Glass Ceiling posted a flood of allegations of sexual assault, abuse of power and bullying at major record labels.
Many of the anonymous complaints were about Sony Music.
Former secretary Eleanor McKay said she immediately recognised the behaviour being described.
“As soon as I read them I actually felt sick,” she said.
“I felt really angry that it was still going on and that it was still predominantly young women or junior staff who were bearing the brunt, and they were the ones that had to speak out.”
As the heat turned up on Sony Music, Handlin was sacked by the global head office amid its “workplace culture” investigation.
Four other executives have also left the company with no explanation.
In a statement, 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.”
Greg Lockhart said the global head office should be held accountable for ignoring the welfare of its Australian staff for decades.
“For them to just say, ‘Oh, we found out about it a month ago or two months ago,’ it’s just implausible,” he said.
“It’s insulting to everyone that’s worked there and copped this abuse for all those years.
“These people were traumatised … and until they see New York stand up and have the guts to come out and face the music on this … this story is not going to go away.”
Leave a Reply