How Skills Tests Reduce Unconscious Bias When Hiring

Vicki Mann

Posted 16/08/2021
by Vicki Mann

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How Skills Tests Reduce Unconscious Bias When Hiring

Not only can skills tests streamline your recruitment processes, but they can also reduce unconscious bias in your organisation also, leading to an improved organisational culture.

In today’s social landscape, inequalities are becoming increasingly noticeable. As well as being an uncomfortable reality, this has sparked conversations about improving areas of life that are lacking diversity and inclusivity, one of these being the workplace. The job market is competitive enough as it is, the progress of many applicants is hindered even further by unconscious bias within the hiring process.

Ultimately, the goal of recruiting a new employee should be to find the best candidate whose experience, ability and skills match up to that required of the role, but scores of studies have shown that the human brain’s decision-making process is not purely objective. Implementing skills assessments, such as those that identify and measure a candidate's strengths in literacynumeracy, has become a popular way of countering such unconscious bias within hiring decisions. These pre-employment assessments exclusively assess a person’s work-relevant attributes and skills to offer a fairer assessment of a candidate's skill level.

This blog will highlight the way in which implementing skills assessments—as well as other methods—in your hiring process, can help to level the playing field, offering a better, bias-free candidate experience, and allowing for equal opportunity recruitment.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias occurs when our brains make very quick, unconscious judgements about other people. These judgements can be based on another person’s appearance, race, age, gender and accent (to name just a few influencing factors) and can take the form of both positive and negative biases. These implicit assumptions are the result of a combination between our socio-cultural conditioning and an evolutionary trait which makes us favour those similar to ourselves (also known as affinity bias).

Natural as these snap judgements may be, they become incredibly problematic when they influence the hiring process, as because they can be inaccurate and can also affect decisions in favour or against somebody based factors unrelated to their suitability for the job (exemplified by the statistic that 80% of UK employers make decisions based on regional accents).

If these biases are left uncontrolled, they can impact the company culture of a workplace by making it discriminatory and inaccessible to certain groups. It is therefore important to become aware of your own unconscious biases, so that your business can prepare an adjusted hiring process which bypasses them as much as possible and allows for a positive work environment. You can take Harvard, Virginia and Washington Universities’ Implicit Association test to evaluate your own biases.

Why is addressing unconscious bias important?

While it is accepted that unconscious biases do not have malice at their root, they are nevertheless an incredibly damaging problem within both business and wider society if individuals do not identify and remedy them. For this reason, companies are becoming increasingly aware that unconscious bias must be tackled internally and not be allowed to play a role in the assessment of a prospective employee.


From a social justice standpoint, addressing unconscious bias is crucial because it deepens existing social inequalities. Racism, ageism, sexism and ableism have already been proven to be a huge problem within recruitment.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that applicants who disclosed a disability received 26% fewer interview invitations, even if the disability was unrelated to the role, and a 2017 study found that applications for a position submitted with “distinct racial names” were treated staggeringly differently, with applicants with white names receiving 36% more invitations to interview than applicants with Black names. Such proof that these biases run rampant within the assessment of a candidate for a position validates the argument for a process that doesn't allow room for bias.

Furthermore, when unconscious expectations seep into hiring decisions (such as the bias that women aren't as good a fit for leadership roles as men), this entrenches prejudiced and unfounded societal disparities.

Detrimental to business

Addressing unconscious bias is not only a moral issue – it is also a business one. In terms of profitable success, studies have shown that more diverse companies outperform their less diverse counterparts; companies which are more culturally diverse are 36% more likely to perform better, while gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to succeed. Additionally, if unconscious bias is allowed to influence the recruitment process it can result in costly discrimination lawsuits. Cases based on discriminatory hiring practices in recent years have seen settlements reached at record-high figures following expensive litigation. Clearly, regardless of how unconscious a bias may be, serious action can be taken as a result.

Using skills tests to reduce unconscious bias

Much like blind hiring, skills tests offer anonymity to candidates, meaning that their assessment experience is more likely to be bias-free. When candidates’ applications for a role are anonymised through skills tests, it allows for interview invitations to be issued based on on the measure of a person's skills, rather than their background, personality or education.

Boosting inclusivity

Skills tests, as a way of selecting applicants for interview, are certainly more inclusive than the traditional method of CV review. As well as enabling unconscious bias to be influenced by the name on the resume (as discussed above), CV review highlights educational qualifications such as a university degree. But why may this be problematic?

Higher education is the site of some worrying systemic inequalities. Not only is access to university or college statistically tougher for those from ethnic minorities and lower-income households, but those who receive offers still encounter hurdles. For example, Black graduates are 12% less likely to gain a first class degree than white graduates of similar socio-economic backgrounds. So, choosing candidates based on objective hiring decisions instead of predetermined degree requirements is likely to result in a more diverse workforce.

Accurately predicting job performance

When using a skills test, however, it is not as simple as just anonymising the results. In order for the data to be accurate and useful to hiring managers, the test must be carefully curated and standardised.

Skills assessments can come in many forms - they can be job-specific, meaning that they evaluate functions that are job-related, such as data entryfilingsorting and coding skills for a clerical position, or customer service and stock control for a retail job. Additionally, there are many skills assessments that test more general skills, such as literacynumeracylogictyping, and the programs included in the Microsoft Office suite. When used fairly, skills assessments serve as a valid predictor of how the job candidate would perform in the role.

When selecting a skills test for your hiring process, it is good practice to make existing employees take the assessment themselves before testing the abilities of of the applying candidates. If the experienced team members all score highly in the test, your business has a good indicator that it is an appropriate way of assessing the specific skills necessary to meet the job requirements.

Finally, in order to effectively determine each candidate's performance in the skills test, each person much take the exact same test at the same stage in the application process. Standardising the assessment in this way will ensure equity in the level of opportunity candidates are given to show their strengths, as well as making the data easier to compare.  

Other ways to reduce unconscious bias

We believe our skills tests are the key to forming unbiased hiring systems. However, there are other ways that companies can adapt their recruitment process to reduce bias at every stage.

Do not advertise using gendered adjectives

Organisations should prepare to reduce bias in recruiting before the skills tests are even taken. Studies show that the wording used in job descriptions has a marked effect on how people of different genders perceive their own suitability for a position, with men more likely to apply to openings that use language such as “competitive” and women more likely to a throw their hat in the ring when descriptors such as “collaborative” are used. As well as being conscious of balancing the number of feminine and masculine adjectives included in their job descriptions, companies can run through online programs that will highlight any problem phrases which could enable gender bias.

Anonymise CV review

While there is a case for substituting CV review for skills tests completely, the two can also still co-exist as stages of hiring. If a business believes CV review is an important step in filtering candidates down to a smaller pool, they can harness software (or their own workforce) to hide candidates’ information such as their name and photograph to make sure hiring managers cannot involuntarily discriminate.

Structure interviews

A Yale University study has shown that structured interviews are far better at reducing bias than more conversational interviews. Structuring the face-to-face interview and sticking to a script ensures that each interviewee is asked defined questions and helps reduce bias by keeping the interview focused on role-relevant information. Additionally, doing so while using a diverse interview panel minimises the risk of the hiring business favouring a candidate based on irrelevant commonalities.

Score likability

Naturally, it is a huge bonus if the applicant who is best suited to the job requirements is also likeable and gels well with the team. However, allowing this factor to influence a decision without control can mean the panel falls into the trap of unconscious bias. Consider giving likability a score just the same way as other factors which will be rated at interview.

Set diversity goals

Putting the issue of diversity and inclusivity at the core of a company’s culture will increase awareness of internal inequalities and keep the aim of correcting them at the forefront of the conversation. By providing hiring managers with training which flags up their own implicit biases and educating them on the advantages of diversifying the workforce, businesses can self-assess their level of inclusivity and track the progress made after implementing more unbiased hiring strategies.

 Explore our range of skills test modules to select the best assessment for your business. As you have seen, skills assessments are not only an extremely effective way of effectively assessing the skills of your job candidates, they can also greatly improve your company culture by helping to eliminate bias from your recruitment practices.

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