‘Sony was ruled by fear’: 20 former employees come forward
20 former Sony Music Australia employees have come forward to share allegations of a toxic workplace culture within the company.
In an investigation by The Guardian Australia writer Kelly Burke, the former Sony employees shared complaints that focused broadly on the overall workplace culture, rather than specific individuals.
As reported by TIO, Denis Handlin was removed as the company’s chief executive a week after the publication approached their head office with the complaints.
However, none of the Sony employees featured in the article accused Handlin of sexual harassment. Instead, they were critical of the work environment which was fostered while he was CEO.
The complaints, which span more than two decades, include allegations of sexual harassment at work events, unfair treatment of women in the workplace, intimidation and alcohol abuse. Each of the employees who spoke to The Guardian did so under the condition of anonymity.
“Sony was ruled by fear, like nowhere else I’ve ever worked,” a former promotions manager told The Guardian.
Meanwhile, a former Sony manager said: “They hire young people [who] walk into that culture and think that’s normal because it’s all they’ve ever known.”
Five of the former employees that the publication spoke to revealed that they sought professional mental health treatment due to the stress their jobs caused them.
A former artists and repertoire coordinator, dubbed ‘Georgia’ for the article, recalled being told by an intoxicated senior male colleague that she would receive “top marks” if her upcoming performance review was “based on [her] physique.”
After discussing the incident with two female colleagues, she was advised not to report it to HR as it “works to protect the business… you’ll just end up losing your job.”
Another female employee who left in 2016, ‘Leah’, agreed that she never saw any consequences from complaints about inappropriate workplace behaviour.
“Most of us just became resigned. There was no way you would take a serious complaint of your own to HR,” she said.
On top of that, ‘Bridget’, who also left in 2016, alleged that she was “arse groped” by a senior male colleague twice.
When she told a female colleague what happened, she replied that he “does that to everyone.”
“I remember thinking at the time, it was kind of comforting that he did it to everyone, because it meant that I wasn’t a target. I was just another arse,” she said.
Five of the women that The Guardian spoke to made mention of a 2010 function dubbed “Boatgate”, where young attractive women in the office were singled out to attend a harbour cruise put on for a Sony executive visiting from New York.
‘Frankie’ said she remembered being “really rattled” as the women in the office realised that all the invitees were “young pretty girls”.
“The marketing manager for these artists wasn’t invited, but the intern who worked three days a week was. So the girls who were invited felt like pieces of meat, and the girls who weren’t invited felt like ugly pigs,” she said.
‘Claire’, a former publicist who left in 2012, recalled being advised by her female supervisor that she may lose her job if she lodged a formal complaint about the incident.
‘Fiona’, a former employee in a managerial position who left in 2017 told The Guardian that “Boatgate” was not an isolated incident. She recalled her young coordinator, who was new to the company, receiving an invitation to an annual gala event that she herself had never been invited to.
“I know how that event gets very drunk and very messy and it goes very late, and they wanted my coordinator who had only been with us for a few weeks to go,” she said.
“As a representative of the company, I felt compromised having to warn a junior that she was entering a work environment that was not as safe as it was supposed to be.”
Several of the Sony employees featured in the article recalled an unhealthy drinking culture that made them feel unsafe and pressured to drink.
“You’d be at work events and you’d have mostly men around you – very drunk older men – and you just can’t drink, you have to have your wits about you,” said ‘Georgia’.
‘Frankie’ alleged that she was propositioned by a male executive following a Sony conference in Terrigal in 2013.
When she entered a lift with the executive and pressed the button for her floor of the hotel, he reportedly said, “are you sure you want to get out on that floor?”
According to ‘Frankie’, the other male employees in attendance just laughed at the comment.
‘Hannah’, who worked as a personal assistant in the early 2000s, revealed that she “became a drunk at Sony”.
“I drank every night. It was the environment. I walked out of Sony in 2009 and I went straight to [Alcoholics Anonymous],” she said.
As reported by The Guardian, several of the former Sony employees said they were expected to have a drink at any time from mid-afternoon if Handlin was present.
Staff were reportedly expected to drink shots of tequila whenever a new artist was signed, and “wouldn’t be seen as part of the Sony family” if they declined, according to ‘Fiona’.
Another employee, ‘Claire’, recalled asking bar staff to give her lemonade in a vodka glass to avoid being pressured into drinking.
Each of the former Sony employees interviewed by The Guardian said that the pressure to drink came from senior management, with many agreeing that it was seen as part of their job to remain at company functions until Handlin left.
“It didn’t matter that you still had to be in the office at 8.30 the next morning,” said ‘Sarah’.
“It could be 3.30am, but your boss is ordering shots, and you know that if you leave, the next day you could be called in and hauled over the coals for it.”
‘Georgia’ revealed that it was expected that employees would show bar staff a photo of Handlin prior to arrival at functions, to ensure that a waiter was at his side immediately following his entrance.
‘Claire’ believes that it was her failure to follow this protocol that led to her departure from the company.
While in charge of a 2012 MGMT publicity appearance, she said she received a phone call warning her that Handlin was on his way and “in a mood”.
Explaining that Handlin appeared to be drunk, she alleged that he “just started screaming at me … ‘You’re hopeless at your job, what do you think you’re doing, you should know your job by now’… and there were all the executives in suits standing behind him and not one of them stepped in and tried to intervene.”
“All these men just stared at me in silence.”
‘Claire’ resigned shortly after the incident and “spent three months in bed” from being ‘burnt out.”
“I stopped getting my period, I had lost so much weight, I was just so stressed,” she said.
Several other former Sony employees spoke to The Guardian about witnessing intimidating behaviour from Handlin.
“We used to have weekly meetings, and it was actually a bit of a sick joke, who is he going to target today?” said ‘Maryanne’.
“And then he would just find the smallest thing wrong and just rip someone apart.”
Meanwhile, ‘Sarah’ alleged that Handlin “screamed at you and called you a ‘fucking c**t'” if you didn’t get a song on the radio.
‘Claire’ also revealed she was yelled at by Handlin, saying: “[he would say] there was a conga line down the street of people desperate to work at Sony, and that ‘anyone could take your job in a second’.”
Five former employees reported having been let go from the company while they were either pregnant or on maternity leave. Two of the women The Guardian spoke to revealed they had to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of their redundancy packages.
‘Christine’, who was made redundant when she was five months pregnant, said she sought legal advice before deciding the stress of a legal challenge against her dismissal wasn’t worth the risk during her pregnancy.
‘Fiona’ revealed that she was made to make an assistant redundant, “for no particular reason, just because the young woman was not liked”.
“Two weeks later I had a new assistant, so it was a non-genuine redundancy,” she said.
‘Sarah’ also alleged that she was encouraged to accept a redundancy package before going on maternity leave after being told that her job may not exist upon her return. However, the employee who replaced her reportedly remained in the role for the next five years.
As reported by The Guardian, Sony Music Australia announced four female promotions to senior levels in February of this year. Three weeks later, a further four female staff were promoted.
According to ‘Maryanne’, it was “obvious” to all who had worked there that Sony had made the decision to “make themselves look good.”
“There hasn’t been any female promotions like that for years… and it wasn’t for lack of female talent within that company. There were so many amazing women that worked there,” she said.
“But it was just such a boys’ club, there was only ever one woman on the [executive] team, seriously, it was like working in the 1980s or worse.”
‘James’ a music industry executive who served on the Aria board alongside Handlin for six years, said it was now up to Sony Music’s office in New York to take action following the complaints.
He alleged that the New York office had been aware of complaints of “toxic work practises” since “at least the mid-1990s”.
“They know about the tequila shots in the meetings, the boat cruises, the pretty girls all lined up or moved to the front, the verbal abuse, the NDAs,” he said.
“But head office goes, ‘Well, that’s just Australia, as long as the targets are being met, and the hits are being made.’”
While both Sony Music Australia and Handlin declined to respond to questions from The Guardian, Sony Music Entertainment in New York provided the following statement last week:
“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.”
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.