Sony Music Australia Employees Call Out ‘Toxic’ Culture, Consider Class-Action Lawsuit Amid Chief Denis Handlin’s Exit

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Sony Music Australia staff have spoken out about the company’s “nightmarish and toxic” culture following CEO Denis Handlin’s abrupt exit last week, with some even exploring legal action.

Until last week, Handlin was Sony Music’s longest-serving employee, having been with the label for over 50 years. His departure was unexpectedly announced in a company-wide memo from Sony Music’s U.K.-based chairman Rob Stringer, who said it was “effective immediately.” His ousting reportedly sent “shockwaves” through Australia’s music industry.

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Stories of SMA’s male-dominated, alcohol-fuelled culture had been swirling in the Australian press for weeks in the run-up to Handlin’s exit. In April, SMA’s VP of commercial music, Tony Glover, who allegedly reported directly into Handlin, was terminated following bullying and harassment allegations.

An SMA spokesperson told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time: “Upon receiving complaints of alleged inappropriate behaviour, a senior counsel was immediately engaged to independently investigate the allegations. Following completion of the investigation, the company acted on the findings. Sony Music Australia can confirm that Tony Glover has been dismissed with immediate effect.”

In mid-June, the Sydney Morning Herald reported SMA was being investigated by its Sony Music counterpart in New York regarding allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Handlin’s departure was revealed a week later.

A source has confirmed to Variety that an investigation into the Australian office is taking place.

As well as Handlin and Glover, two other employees have reportedly been placed on “indefinite leave”: Handlin’s son Pat, who was VP of artists and repertoire (A&R), and Mark Stebnicki, the senior VP of strategy, corporate affairs and human resources. Pat, who began his career at SMA, briefly worked as an A&R manager for Simon Cowell’s Syco Music U.K., which is also owned by Sony, before returning to Australia.

In the wake of his departure, Handlin has been accused of presiding over a “toxic” work environment in which he regularly screamed at employees, belittled them, cursed at them and went on “tirades” in meetings, according to a report from The Guardian Australia. Such was their psychological distress during their tenure at the company that five former employees told the newspaper they ended up seeking mental health treatment.

Employees also spoke of an alcohol-soaked culture where shots were reportedly downed every time a new artist was signed or a record hit number one. SMA’s boardroom was even equipped with barstools, insiders claim. Handlin himself reportedly expected his employees to have a drink in hand and also out-stay him at company functions. One employee told the newspaper they ended up attending Alcoholics Anonymous after leaving the company.

Guardian Australia also reported an incident referred to internally as “Boatgate,” in which a selection of young, attractive and, in some cases, junior female employees were invited to a harbor cruise to entertain an executive from Sony’s New York office. However, women who were working on accounts relevant to the New York executive but were not deemed attractive enough were left off the guest-list. This wasn’t an isolated incident, according to the newspaper.

“The marketing manager for these artists wasn’t invited, but the intern who worked three days a week was,” an anonymous source told The Guardian Australia. “So the girls who were invited felt like pieces of meat, and the girls who weren’t invited felt like ugly pigs.”

One female employee also recalled receiving an inappropriate remark about her body from a male executive shortly before he conducted a performance review. Yet other women said they had been groped, propositioned or discriminated against after becoming pregnant.

Australian law firm MacDougall and Hydes, who are based in Sydney, confirmed to Variety that they have been approached by more than 40 former SMA employees who are considering a class-action lawsuit against the company.

A global Sony Music Entertainment spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations.

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