Could virtual reality teach us how to properly fire someone? This company thinks it can

There’s no secret recipe to perfecting firing or layoffs.

It’s an emotional practice for both boss and the employer about to be delivered the ax, a situation in which the unexpected can happen, from the easy layoffs where someone goes quietly understanding the conditions for their termination, to the more toxic scenarios involving unexpected emotional outbursts, and perhaps, sometimes violence.

While managers might think they have their firing techniques perfected, there’s always room for improvement – and it could start with virtual reality.

Meet Barry Thompson, a virtual employee designed by VR tycoon Talespin. When you meet Barry through Talespin’s software “Virtual Human Technology,” he’s about to be fired. Once you slide on virtual-reality goggles, Barry is sitting in a chair waiting for the dreaded two-words: you’re fired.

By interacting with Barry, managers and human resource-types can get a better understanding of how they can approach a real-life situation because Barry isn’t just going to sit there and take the news lightly. How someone interacts with him dictates his response, just like in real-life, and it can be extremely useful in real situations.

“Practicing empathetic responses to difficult workplace scenarios, such as employee termination or performance review, helps employees gain knowledge that can be relied upon when faced with the real thing,” Talespin CEO Kyle Jackson told Ladders recently. “For difficult conversations like this, employees can practice over and over with the virtual human simulations in a safe learning environment. This will best prepare them for the tough conversations and real-life situations they may encounter throughout their careers.”

Jackson equated his software to baseball. Like practicing a swing with a pitching machine, one can prepare themselves for when they face someone on the mound. Pilots do the same by going through flight simulators before taking off for their first flight. Practice makes perfect, or at least in termination terms, better for the bosses and employees.

Talespin, which is based in California and the Netherlands, developed Barry through artificial intelligence (AI.) The company offers other virtual reality training through learning like 3D receptions of real-world objects and environments to prep workers for what they can expect.

With Barry, the company aims to train users’ interpersonal and leadership skills that come into play during office interactions.

“This type of simulation and practice can yield invaluable experience and confidence, helping people build necessary soft skills to succeed in the workplace and ultimately become better humans,” Jackson said.

How VR can help the workplace

Accepting virtual reality as prep for actual reality might come with some hesitation. Like anything new, it poses challenges and an understanding before the potential to change.

Some companies have started to pivot in the direction of VR in terms of employee development. Walmart started training employees with VR headsets designed by Oculus to better prep workers for real-world situations they’d face at in-stores, like dealing with Black Friday and helping mold workers for what they could expect on the busiest shopping day of the year.

Verizon did the same using VR to help navigate employees through dangerous and toxic working situations including scenarios where armed gunmen enter a store at opening and closing. These exercises are designed to create the raw, emotion distress that someone would experience in an actual situation and help them if such a traumatic event were to occur.

Jackson said VR offers a way to teach employees “soft skills” like communication, collaboration, leadership, and decision which are desired by workers everywhere.

“Technologies like VR are a scalable and cost-effective way for businesses to quickly upskill or reskill workers, which will be increasingly important as automation and digital transformation change the workforce skills landscape, and provides a better opportunity to learn than traditional role-playing does,” he said.

What AI-enabled software aims to create is real-time feedback through a virtual experience that feels authentic to create emotional muscle memory and can help people get real-time guidance to navigate through difficult workplace situations.

“Our goal is to create emotional realism,” Jackson explained. “That goes beyond what common learning tools can achieve and to give people a better baseline of experience when it comes to navigating difficult conversations in the workplace.”

What to say — and not say — with Barry

In a video viewed by Ladders, Barry Thompson is in the hot seat with human resources over his workplace conduct. Your mission is simple: let Barry know his employment is being terminated — but be careful.

When using Talespin’s VR, there are a few options the firer has on how they deliver the news Barry wasn’t expecting. Your responses elicit different responses and reactions, just like it would in a real firing setting, except with VR, you’re preparing yourself or coaching yourself, so mistakes can teach you how to better know yourself.

Jackson said some common mistakes people made when interacting with Barry started with being abrupt or not allowing him enough time to process what happened. Barry will become upset and get aggressive with shouting. However, if you take a more emotional and sympathetic approach, Barry, too, will open up by crying.

virtual reality talespin
Barry Thompson, created by Talespin.

“We learn best through our failures. Having a safe place to fail that doesn’t negatively impact a customer, colleague or vendor offers employees a tool they’ve never had before. We think this will outperform role-playing, video, and prior methods for teaching soft skills,” Jackson said.

“When you converse with a virtual character and experience their reactions to your choices, it improves your awareness and understanding of the impact different responses have on another individual. This is why creating emotional realism through nuanced mannerisms and a high level of variance in possible conversation paths is critical in these simulations. We then can use these skills in our own everyday lives to stop and think about how our words and actions might affect someone.”