How to leave a job in the arts without burning bridges

Setting the house alight as you walk away looks good in movies, but in life it's best to leave nicely and stay on good terms.
small house made of matches is burning on one side.

When you know, you know.

If it’s time to leave a job that’s no longer right for you – especially if pain and conflict are involved – it can be tempting to light a match, throw a bomb and walk away without a backwards glance.

Some employers deserve such an approach, especially if abusive, illegal or exploitative practices have been involved. The 2023 Australian film The Royal Hotel comes to mind. Written and directed by Kitty Green, the film updates the Aussie psychological thriller classic Wake in Fright with a modern depiction of outback misogyny and alcoholism. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for the employer – the two young women working behind the bar have good reason to set the joint alight instead of sending polite resignation letters.

But for most of us, especially those working in Australia’s small and interconnected creative sectors, it makes good sense to leave on good terms wherever possible and take the high road.

After all, though many organisations (and the managers who run them) are dysfunctional, before we label them toxic, narcissistic or even evil, it can be kinder on ourselves to break up and move on without too much drama – not to mention the legal costs of defamation or arson!

In the game of musical chairs and opening night galas, it’s highly likely you’ll find yourself sitting next to familiar faces from previous workplaces. So call out injustice or malpractice if you see it, but try to make as few enemies as possible.

As Aneke McCulloch tells ArtsHub, ‘In 20 years of working in arts, cultural, and government sectors, I have enjoyed a huge range of different jobs, which naturally means I have resigned more than a few times over the years. A lot of the time your employer understands, especially earlier in your career, that you are hungry for new experiences. Explaining that you have an exciting new opportunity is not something that anyone would begrudge you, as long as you make your leaving all about you and not them, your employer should get it. And with this approach I have returned to a couple of past workplaces in new roles, with no issues.’

According to recent statistics, nearly a quarter (23%) of UK workers changed jobs in 2023, a 5% rise on 2022, and a fifth (21%) are not satisfied with their current job. That’s a whole lot of resignation letters (or termination notices).

Here are some guidelines and protocols for keeping things nice, so you can leave your job with a cool head, a clear conscience and your good reputation intact.

1. Think it through and protect your joy

It’s best to enter the process of leaving with clarity and purpose rather than announcing it in the middle of a conflict.

Consider your reasons for leaving. Is there room for negotiation or compromise? Could one key change (or a few tweaks) make your role workable? Would a promotion or a pay raise change your mind? If you’ve already accepted another job, your mind is probably made up, but be ready for push-back and negotiation if your employer really wants to keep you.

As one arts worker who wished to remain anonymous told ArtsHub, ‘A senior arts CEO once told me to “come to a job with joy in your heart and leave with joy in your heart”, which I always interpreted as knowing the right time to leave, i.e. when relationships are still intact and you can exit gracefully rather than stay too long and have a bitter exit, especially in our small industry where you always come across people again!’

2. Be aware of the correct resignation etiquette

What are the terms of your employment agreement? Ensure you’re across how many weeks’ notice you need to give – typically two weeks, unless otherwise stipulated in your contract – and what you’ll be expected to do in those weeks.

3. Consider how you intend to communicate your intentions to your manager

Writing a letter avoids difficult face to face confrontation and if the relationship has broken down and you are really falling apart, the advantage of a written resignation is that it lets you craft your message without risking tears and messy emotions.

But if your relationship with your manager and workplace is still OK, it’s nicer to tell them in a conversation so you can talk about how things are going to work in your remaining time together.

Read: 19 job to consider for a career change in 2024

4. Put it in writing

Your resignation letter will include your name, job title, your intention to resign from your role, and your notice period and final date of employment. If you’re keeping things sweet, you may include a note of thanks to your employer for the opportunity they’ve given you and their support.

Depending on the circumstances, you may wish to outline briefly the reasons you’re leaving. However, Nicole Jenkins, an author and ex-retailer who used to run the the Circa Vintage Clothing shop in Melbourne’s Gertrude Street, advises employees to keep such letters short and sweet:

‘As someone who used to process resignation letters, just keep them short and to the point,’ says Jenkins. ‘“I am resigning effective <date>” is quite enough. Any reasons or additional information should be verbal between you and your manager. You don’t need a whole lot of people entering that loop. And don’t give reasons unless you’re happy for the discussion to continue and perhaps evolve into an argument or counter-offer.

‘I wish I had known then before I quit a heap of times!’ says Jenkins. ‘It’s best to keep the emotion out of this situation: any issues should be sorted before the final decision is made.’

5. Decide which information to share with your colleagues

Try not to gossip and bitch. Your workmates may also be close friends and war buddies and, if so, they probably know you’re unhappy or planning a move. But remember, they have to keep working there, so keep it tight. If management hears before you officially inform them that you’re leaving, it won’t look good and the timing and circumstances of your exit may be removed from your control.

6. Assist in transition and handover

You can maintain maximum goodwill by assisting in the transition process. This could involve preparing a detailed handover document outlining your current projects, pending tasks and any information that your successor will need to know.

Dave Witteveen, whose experience has mostly been in the library sector, has this advice:

‘If it’s a well-run organisation and you get on well with your manager, then the best thing you can do when leaving is to spend your notice period documenting procedures and writing handover notes on your projects. That way your replacement can get up to speed quickly, and your old manager will love you.

‘But if the organisation has problems, and you’ve tried to address them before, things aren’t going to magically improve because you vented in your exit interview. Keep it bland and professional. Rant to your friends in the pub afterwards.’

7. Prepare for your exit interview

Here’s the place where good judgement is most called for. What do you have to gain by outlining your complaints and grievances? In an ideal world, your feedback would make the workplace better for current and future employees, but is your criticism even going to reach the right ears?

Some cynics say that large organisations with HR departments merely use exit interview material to judge how you’ll be talking about their organisation in the future. This is no time for bitterness or pettiness that may just come back to bite you.

Aneke McCulloch says she has left a couple of high-demand jobs because of a risk of burnout and says, ‘In these cases I explained that there were significant personal events that meant the timing for committing to those particular roles was no longer right for me. Again this is all about me and not them.’

McCulloch concedes that if the organisation does need to be told that it is expecting too much from its workers, feedback should be given constructively. ‘Don’t make it about the people at the workplace, but about the job itself, and your commitment to it being done to the best standard.’

Jo Case, an author and editor, says one good tactic is to keep it ‘all about me, not you’.

‘If you’re resigning with another job to go to, you can make it about the new job being too good to resist rather than the job you’re leaving being a problem,’ says Case.

Another anonymous respondent gave this slightly cheeky advice: ‘You can always frame leaving as a lifestyle choice, and if you’re leaving arts for the government or private sector, say it was all about the money, whether it was or not!’

Image: Pexels.

8. Work hard until you actually leave

Tempting as it may be to relax once you’ve handed in your resignation, this is not the time to start slacking if you want to leave on good terms. Remaining professional and continuing to do your job will make things easier for your remaining workmates and leave a good impression, which is especially relevant if you’re hoping for a reference.

9. Stay positive and express gratitude

Try to maintain a positive attitude throughout your departure process and avoid gossip or negative comments about the organisation and your superiors. If you can do it sincerely, take the time to express gratitude for the opportunities and experiences gained with thank-you emails or notes to colleagues. You may wish to include your personal email address in this note, so those who wish to can stay in touch.

As Alison Green writes on her excellent and detailed blog Ask Manager, your farewell email may or may not include details of where you’re going to next:

‘…whether or not to include that depends on the practices (and maybe policies) of your current workplace. Some places really, really don’t like you promoting your next employer to their clients, particularly if it’s a competitor. (Of course, they can’t stop you from sharing that information after you leave, but if you’re sending the email while you’re still working there, you should take that into account.)’

10. Network and stay connected

Update your portfolio, LinkedIn and other professional networking platforms while details of your current role are still fresh in your mind. It’s tempting to keep looking forward but this is a great time to take stock of what you’ve actually achieved in the job you’re leaving, and to ask for references and recommendations from those you’ve worked with. Stay connected to the colleagues you value, attend professional events and keep the lines of communication open for potential collaborations down the track.

And finally, it’s OK to let go and move on. As in love and romance, not every work connection was meant to last a lifetime.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She was previously a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk