updates: executive cries with delight every day, sounding more approachable during high stress, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. Executive is crying with delight at seeing people back at work — every day

I left that job.

Your advice, and the reassurance that the COO’s behavior was deeply abnormal, was a great push in the right direction. The daily situation did not improve, and the more I thought about your questions (does he otherwise seem his normal self? No. Are others noticing and feeling concerned? YEP.), the more frustrated I became that the rest of the exec team, especially the CEO, was letting it slide. Multiple people voiced their concerns, and were ignored.

All of this prompted me to think critically about whether this was a one-off thing, or part of a larger problem. Being back in the office really offered a lot of clarity, and it wasn’t a difficult decision to seek alternative employment once I realized that, in general, the organization was led by people disinterested in thinking about the staff as actual people with whole lives and needs versus butts in seats.

A few months after I left, I heard the COO simply stopped showing up after making a series of bizarre statements during a full-staff meeting. I don’t want to speculate on what was going on with him, but I do hope he gets the support he needs.

2. How can I sound more approachable in high-stress work periods? (#2 at the link)

Writing in was a good wake-up call for my stress levels. I did use more of the openers and friendly expressions suggested, but the biggest helper was just slowing everything down. My boss’s tendency to rush all the time (because we have too much to do and not enough time to do it) was rubbing off on me. That is definitely not the manager I wanted to be, because being managed by someone with limited warmth and no care about your personal life (even just a “how is your family doing?”) is not quite the best fit for me.

In the last few months, I have greatly reduced my work hours and am no longer a manager (of my own choosing). Once some things in my personal life move around, I’ll probably start job-hunting to see if I can find a better fit.

Thank you, and I wish all other letter writers happy updates this season!

3. Should I rehire an employee who left after five months? (#5 at the link)

Our ex-employee has so far stayed at his role with the other company (despite his issues with it), so I haven’t had to deal with the live question of whether to rehire him beyond the hypothetical. But you were right that, upon further reflection, I had been minimizing his serious performance issues because I like him as a person and enjoyed having him in the office. Our other employees have also shared how, despite their positive personal rapport with him, his inability to meet deadlines had been driving them up the wall—and for that reason, they are somewhat relieved he left. So for performance reasons alone, the passage of time has made it clearer that it would not be wise to rehire him even if the opportunity presented itself at some point.

That said, it was an important role for the company and we still haven’t been able to refill it yet! I’m not exactly sure why, but I imagine it’s a combination of the typical labor market issues many companies are experiencing and the niche nature of this specific role. (Our hiring process for other roles is moving along faster.) So knowing how difficult this role would be to fill was also probably part of why I was downplaying this employee’s shortcomings and entertaining the possibility of bringing him back. It hasn’t been easy to make do without anyone in this role for most of this year, but ultimately, it’s better to have a longer-than-ideal transition period between employees than to have a subpar employee in the role who is making others’ jobs more stressful.

4. I asked for help building my skills and got put on a PIP (#2 at the link)

I followed what you shared, and asked my manager for clarification on the PIP and how she planned to follow through with measuring my progress. Early on in the process, my manager described the PIP as a tool to help me and told me that she put a lot of effort into writing it. I implemented steps to fulfill the PIP and set up a dedicated time during our weekly check-in’s to discuss anything PIP related. I networked within the company on areas I wanted to improve on as well.

Throughout the four months I was on the PIP, my manager had relatively little feedback to share with me on my progress, did not complete my next quarterly performance review, and offered no resources on how I could improve. She did, however, send me a self-help book on finding my purpose in life.

Knowing what I know now about PIPs, I realize that the plan was not designed to help me succeed or get the structure I sought when I first asked for help. Her feedback on my work became increasingly berating, and she questioned why I needed clarification on projects when I had a master’s degree in my field. I mentioned some of her comments to HR, but they chalked it up to me not being a culture fit.

Needless to say, it was a challenging time, and I’m thankful a coworker clued me in that a PIP may not end well and to start looking for jobs immediately (in addition to AMA reader comments!). I was terminated at the end of the PIP, and left knowing that even if I had made it through, I couldn’t have thrived under that kind of management style. I received a job offer two weeks after my last day, which I accepted. I’m in a much better place and appreciate the advice you shared six months ago!

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. Vice President of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    My takeaway from #4 is this:

    (1) DO NOT agree to an unwarranted PIP.

    (2) If they still insist on a PIP, start the job search immediately and quit as soon as you have a solid written offer.

      1. Mockingjay*

        I don’t think you can refuse it; it’s a manager’s prerogative and HR signed off on it. You can certainly object to it: “I had inquired about skill building to ensure the project is a continued success and to eventually progress in my career path here. I don’t see why a PIP is warranted; requesting employee development should not be a corrective action. I would like my objection on the record.”

        Then job hunt.

        1. Antares*

          I got put on a PIP the exact day that I took a promotion at another subsidiary in the parent company. Bunch of petty junk, but I clammed up and didn’t want to burn any bridges on my way out. My new boss though, he got my base salary raised even more to make up for it.

      2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        You can refuse it. You can be fired on the spot for refusing it. The rest is just calculating odds and who has what leverage.

        1. New Mom*

          I had a really horrible boss like 6-7 years ago who refused a PIP and instead gave his six months notice. My grand boss was so frustrated because he knew my boss was vindictive and would probably sue if he could so he felt “held hostage” for a few months until my boss was gone. I don’t know if he was allowed to say he quit or fired in official paperwork. I was sooo relieved when he was gone.

      3. Ellis Bell*

        You can push back somewhat; just far enough to find out whether it’s simply the rogue idea of a clueless manager who thinks they’re giving you the development you asked for, or whether it’s actually the involuntary last chance before you get canned. The OP was not sure when they wrote in. However if they’d said “sorry I’m not clear on why we’re doing this and if it’s for my development, I’d rather get more x instead”.. they would have found out quickly what the deal is. Honestly it’s shocking that OP’s status wasn’t communicated. If someone is in danger of losing their job they need to know that, as well as knowing what’s needed to turn it around. It says a lot about the management they’ve left behind.

      4. Anon Autistic*

        A former employer tried to put me on a PIP for issues stemming from a lack of disability accommodation. After being coerced by HR into disclosure, I went on STD for 3 weeks (also being told that I needed a doctor’s note within 24 hours – not true and not possible!), and managed to stick it out long enough to get a sizable severance.

        I do agree with the general comment in this thread about leverage, and illegal discrimination was sufficient leverage in my case.

        1. Darla*

          I’m so sorry you went though this. The one PIP I’ve been placed on was all about this exact same issue, mixed with complete and total lies my boss was telling. Because everything was in writing, it was really easy to prove that I had been denied perfectly reasonable accommodations (that I shouldn’t have had to request because these were things that actually formed part of policy…stuff like being provided all deadlines in writing, which is big standard industry wide), and that my boss was lying about the quality of my work and the (written) feedback it received.

          The boss had done this type of thing before, and considering how expensive it was to clean up the mess, I don’t know why they weren’t fired as a liability. The boss still tried yo have me fired unlawfully (and was supported by a top level boss, for some reason), but it ended with me being paid a good severance to stop it from going to court.

          It was hideously stressful and it killed any remaining faith I have in employers, managers and even HR (some of them are good, but they are often overridden by bad decisions made by awful people). I have no doubt that 99% of PIPs and firings are undeserved at best and unlawful at worst.

    1. Just Another Techie*

      You don’t really get a choice about a PIP or not though. By the time your manager puts you on one, her mind is made up, and all that’s left to you is to decide how to react.

    2. Purple Cat*

      At OldCo, you could “choose to not accept a PIP”, but that just meant resigning immediately and being eligible for unemployment rather than riding out the timeframe of the PIP or it being shelved.

    3. Prospect Gone Bad*

      The thing is, recognizing you have issues does not absolve you of criticism or any sort of negative repercussions for less than stellar performance. Otherwise, every mediocre employee would ask for a PIP to shield themselves from layoffs.

      It’s also possible that you can show the disconnect between job and employer is even worse during your asking for help.

      If you can’t do some basic part of the job but are asking “gee what can I do,” your manager will think “this person is so lost they don’t even know how to search for a book or video on the things we do all day?”

      1. Audiophile*

        Based on the original letter, the boss did not have any issues with LW’s performance. If there were actual performance issues, the boss should have mentioned that during the initial review, rather than claiming the LW’s performance was satisfactory.

        The LW expressed interest in continuing to grow with the company, strengthening their skills, and wanting more structure in their role. None of that adds up to a PIP, especially when the LW asked for an action or development plan. It’s odd that HR wouldn’t push back on it.

        1. DyneinWalking*

          Actually, in the comments the LW clarified that their letter was missing a “not” – their boss told them that they were not performing to boss’s standards.

          Really, really important correction that totally changes the situation. At the very least, it makes HR’s inaction understandable and the PIP justified, even though the boss sounds like a bad manager in either case. However, what gives me a pause is that from the update, it doesn’t seem like LW fully understood might well end in not improving sufficiently (especially with lack of communication from the manager, and especially if she truly was underperforming!) and that termination was a very real possibility from the start. That suggests that LW’s situational awareness might not be that good, which in turn could have made their boss much more pessimistic about the outcome (not that this is a good reason for lack of communication, but it’s terribly common for people, even managers, to kind of give up when people don’t respond to softened feedback and to hesitate to clearly state the unvarnished truth).

    4. TG*

      A PIP is usually a management tool to get you out by saying you are not meeting goals; I was on one and found out the quotes from two sources were made up because I asked the people they were attributed to!
      Luckily my current boss at the same company hired me completely out of the department with a promotion and I’ve been printed since so everyone in my old department knows it was bull. And the person who put me on the PIP? Demoted and then left because the same big boss who didn’t like me threw him under the bus as well. I have to admit I took some solace in that!

      1. Staja*

        I…was on a similar PIP because the big boss didn’t like me or my boss. My former ToxicJob kept me on the silly thing for 16 months because I was too good at my job to fire, got glowing reviews, and we all knew it was made up. I left for the first job offer that came my way.

      2. Darla*

        I am so sorry that happened to you! The one PIP I’ve been on was full of abject lies from an abusive, bullying boss as well…and these were lies about things that had been said in writing, so it was all very easy to show my boss was lying in an attempt to have me fired illegally. Considering how common this is, I have no idea why bosses who are found to be lying on things like PIPs aren’t fired immediately, with huge apologies provided to those of us who almost lost our livelihoods because of such lies.

  2. Rainy*

    I had a feeling this was how #4 was going to go; I’m sorry that my suspicions were correct. On the other hand, that boss is a Grade A jerk and LW4 is obviously better off, so yay!

    1. the cat's ass*

      This was disturbing when first published, and it’s still disturbing now. Glad the OP bailed.

        1. DomaneSL5*

          Sounds like he had some kind of mental health issue going on. Even the LW said “hope he found the help he needed.”

        2. IndyDem*

          It’s an emotion that they were expressing, emotions are not manipulative on their own. Their behavior is off I agree, but someone crying at work is not manipulative.

        3. Question Marked*

          I’m sorry you have been in professional situations where you have had expressions of emotions weaponized against you or witnessed them weaponized against others. However, please consider that others may not per se be experiencing an emotion to manipulate you or others, they may simply be existing and have no way to control involuntary reactions. On a personal level, I become very flushed when asked any question, it is interpreted as embarrassment when, I’m reality, the only embarrassment comes from me being humiliated by colleagues who cannot accept my repeated assurances that I am not “getting emotional” about the situation.

  3. EPLawywer*

    A PIP should be a last chance to IMPROVE. With management also putting in effort. A PIP is not just a Hey We Need to Document We Tried Before Firing. Nor should it always mean you will be fired. But apparently OP4’s manager wasn’t interested in managing.

    Glad you found something better.

    1. MarsJenkar*

      A PIP shouldn’t be a going-through-the-documentation-motions formality before a firing, but in unhealthy workplaces it can be, and often enough is.

      1. Momma Bear*

        One of my former employers used it that way (document before firing) so when I had an unresolvable issue with a new manager I just left before he got any bright ideas.

    2. Chrysanthemum Tea*

      Yes, if someone is really doing that badly, there are plenty of ways to document it and just fire them if that’s how you want to play it. It’s too bad that PIPs are used as a bad faith tool to kick someone out rather than a good faith tool to lay out a roadmap for improvement.

    3. Merrie*

      Flip side of that is when you’re dealing with an impossible employee who doesn’t get it, and you’ve tried lots of techniques to get them with the program, a PIP is one of the steps you have to take for documentation. Of course if they improved during the course of the PIP that would be awesome.

      A couple of locations ago at Exjob, we were required by our corporate overlords to put any employees on a PIP who scored below a certain (not especially low) point on their evaluation. My second-in-command had scored just below the cutoff, but my manager and I both felt that we were okay with his performance and the direction he was going (he was pretty new, and he was very motivated to improve and was making progress, and he’d already made progress in the multiple-month lag time between the writing of reviews and their delivery). So my manager deliberately wrote a very vague PIP that she could then later point to and say “Oh, yeah, he totally achieved that, he’s fine”. I’m sure that scenario played out in any number of other dysfunctional ways at different locations. The whole exercise was a stupid, stressful waste of everyone’s time. Don’t miss that job.

    1. pope suburban*

      I had similar thoughts. Alarmingly, there are a few high-profile people who fit that description, and those were the folks who immediately sprang to mind. That LW was right to hope that this person gets the support they need- and also right to leave, as it is not their job to get their former boss that help, nor are they obligated to live endlessly with that kind of stress. It’s a very sad situation overall, I think, and I am glad that this LW was able to leave and thrive.

  4. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    OP4’s boss is consistent, at least. They berated OP for asking for clarification on a project (when they had a Masters in the field! Obviously a masters means you know everything about every potential job you might ever have now or in the future, as well as any current or figure boss’s intent, preferences, and idiosyncrasies).

    So when OP dared to not only not mind read but also request *skill development*?? A PIP followed by a firing was clearly the only option. OP should be glad they didn’t immediately get marched out by security. (/s)

    The boss sounds like a total tool who doesn’t know how to manage people or projects, and who punishes people for not being mind readers.

    Can you imagine living inside that boss’s head? Doesn’t sound like a fun or peaceful place to be. I’m glad OP got out.

    1. Down with PIPs*

      Having dealt with a similar manager and problem earlier in my career, I feel awful for OP4.

      The manager needs to be fired, and be banned from having any power over people ever again.

    2. Environmental Compliance*

      “Obviously a masters means you know everything about every potential job you might ever have now or in the future, as well as any current or figure boss’s intent, preferences, and idiosyncrasies).”

      I have met people who believe that a degree, and esp. a graduate degree – of any kind, regardless of relevance- means you know Everything There Is To Know. It’s very frustrating to work with people those people choose to hire for technical roles, when the only thing of importance is Masters Degree and not do they actually have relevant experience & a good work history. (And I say this as someone with 1.5 master’s degrees.)

  5. Michelle Smith*

    I’m shocked by what happened to OP4. If they hadn’t asked for help, would they have been put on the PIP? I’m just so confused. I hope this kind of thing is not normal in most workplaces, because I would hate to think that simply asking for ways to improve satisfactory work could result in a PIP.

    1. Prospect Gone Bad*

      Everyone here is assuming OP #4 was a stellar employee and wouldn’t have ever gotten laid off otherwise. Not sure where that assumption is coming from

      1. Observer*

        Let’s put it this way – we don’t know that the OP was a stellar employee. But we also don’t know that they weren’t. What we DO know for sure though is that the boss claimed to be putting the OP on a PIP as a response to a request for a PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT plan – a request that came up in the context of a meeting in which the boss said that the OP was meeting expectations.

        That tells us that this was NOT a good boss, nor one that manages appropriately. All of the additional information that the OP added here just confirms that.

      2. Mrs. Pommeroy*

        Nobody is assuming OP #4 was stellar but we are assuming they were reasonably good at their job. And even if they weren’t their manager’s reaction was still crappy since an employee should 1) be told about performance issueas before a PIP is considered and 2) not be punished for asking for help.
        And lastly, we are always to be kind to the LW, and your comment does not really reflect that, unfortunately.

        1. Prospect Gone Bad*

          OMG it’s not “unkind” to comment on a letter. What does that even mean? This is a work blog and if we can’t address anyone who has less than stellar performance, then we might as well close shop now.

          None of this addresses the point anyway. If your position was correct, then every employee can just ask for a PIP to make themselves immune to getting fired for performance or from layoffs.

          1. Lyngend (Canada)*

            We are kind to LW (unless they show otherwise) by assuming that they are at least decent employees/managers.
            We take the letter write at their word.
            You are being unkind by assuming that they deserved to be fired, when we actually have evidence that until they had a PIP that they had no reason to think they weren’t meeting expectations (that they were in a meeting where they were told they were meeting expectations).
            No one is implying that being on a PIP means you can’t get fired. But that it’s a tool that should be used to ensure clear communication and outlines the bare minimums expected of an employee.
            This manager didn’t use it that way. They used it as a way to fire an employee with no clear communication nor help to get them up to par. In fact more the opposite.

            1. Irish Teacher*

              I think there was an update saying the original letter was missing a not and that the manager had actually told them they had not handled the project well. It still sounds like the manager handled the whole thing badly though as it sounds like the OP was made to feel like they had handled one project badly but that the manager had accepted that they took responsibility for their mistakes and was willing to support them in building their skills, when in reality the manager appears to have been planning to put them on a PIP and maybe to let them go.

          2. Tracy Flick*

            On top of giving the LW the benefit of the doubt…based on their manager’s own feedback, there was no reason the LW should have been put on a PIP. The LW had just gone through a review, and their manager said their performance was satisfactory.

            A PIP is for an employee who is in serious jeopardy of being fired because they have serious performance issues. The PIP is (or should be) an attempt to identify and address those serious performance issues to prevent the most drastic solution, removal. Typically, a manager institutes a PIP after they have already attempted to address said performance issues in a more informal way.

            It’s possible that there were serious problems with the LW’s performance, but it does not make sense that LW’s manager would only flag them in the form of a surprise PIP, rather than bringing them up beforehand. It’s weird that LW’s manager would suddenly develop a tendency to proactively document and address problems at this late stage, after behavior that (according to the manager’s own written feedback for this employee) involves a lot of laxity with respect to serious performance problems.

            It makes much more sense to see this manager’s behavior as unrelated to serious performance problems. They wanted the employee gone and used the PIP to remove the employee.

      3. Mockingjay*

        When you are meeting expectations, but are aware that to continue to meet those expectations you need more training, experience in X, etc., it’s perfectly normal to ask management for a path forward. These kinds of things do not warrant a PIP. I’ve got 35+ years of experience, and I still ask for help, training, and clarification from managers, supervisors, and coworkers. I have a lot of the answers but not all.

        So when would a PIP be needed? If I was struggling, failed to meet deadlines, turned in erroneous data, etc., and did not bring those things to management’s attention until the project falls behind or an important milestone isn’t reached and the client is pissed, they would have every reason to place me on an improvement plan. That wasn’t the case for OP.

      4. Whence*

        I mean, according to the original letter, this all started with a performance review in which OP was told they were meeting standards. That’s what we know.

        Which may not translate to “stellar”, and certainly the OP seemed to feel they had made mistakes and could use improvement. But if they were a firing level of bad, and the manager handled this by telling them they were doing fine then jumping on a request for help as some kind of excuse to push them out, the manager still sucks.

        1. Hmm*

          Except there was a mistake in the original letter, and the OP pointed out in the comments that they were not meeting standards. Ultimately the communication to the OP regarding the PIP was abysmal and I really feel for the OP, but they weren’t performing well and the PIP may have been warranted/was likely coming soon, anyway.

          1. Whence*

            Oh wow, I didn’t notice that in the comments! That does change a lot about that letter.

            In the end, yeah, it still seems pretty poorly handled, just at a more normal level of dysfunction. Whether or not it was intended, taking OP’s request for help as a cue to start down the road to firing has the effect of punishing them for asking, which is a real shame.

      5. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        There is no proof that OP was stellar, and OP asked for a development plan because she didn’t feel she was getting on very well in the role IIRC.
        But people who write in to advice columns about work are very often conscientious workers who are genuinely trying to do their best. People who don’t give a shit don’t bother to write in.

    2. Chrysanthemum Tea*

      “If they hadn’t asked for help, would they have been put on the PIP?”

      We don’t know. LW4 showed up in the comments on the original thread and clarified that they actually hadn’t been doing that well. Were they doing poorly enough to have been placed on a PIP? No one here knows.

      It’s a shame that they asked for help and got placed on a PIP. As someone commented below and I agreed with, it sounds like she was managed out.

  6. Curmudgeon in California*

    … quarterly performance review …

    This right here tells me you worked for a dumpster fire of an organization.

    Quarterly performance reviews are abusive, IMO. They are also used as a management practice where managers have no clue how to manage, or at least not at a corporate level. Good managers hate them, especially since they usually come with stack ranking. This is a great way to get your entire team competing with each other and also with adjacent teams just to avoid getting voted off the island. The time and effort that goes into quarterly performance reviews is a drain on the resources of a company and kills morale.

    A PIP on top of that is a clear indicator that your time there is done. Run, don’t walk, to your next job.

    1. Longtime lurker*

      LW4- very happy you were able to move on and find a role that makes you happy. The “you have a master’s degree” comments makes me wonder if there was some sort of insecurity/inferiority complex issue with your manager.

    2. Chrysanthemum Tea*

      I obviously don’t know how You have seen the quarterly reviews executed. The way I have seen multiple reviews in a year cycle executed is that there is one end-of-cycle review during which the rankings occur and several check-in reviewsDuring the year. So the cycle would start off by setting goals, there would be one or two meetings where you review progress against the goals and possibly adjust them, and then the cycle would end with a final review where your raise (or not) is revealed.It is actually a much better system than getting a review once yearly.Places that I have been where I only had one yearly review , whatever goals and plans I had set during the last review were basically set in stone with no accounting for how anything might have changed during the year. I obviously also don’t know what the review system was like for LW4, But my point is that I wouldn’t jump to the review system being abusive just because they get four in a year.

  7. Mallory Janis Ian*

    Every time I’ve read the title that the boss “cries with delight every day”, my reaction is, “But how, tho?!” Like, how does anyone access a level of delight so deep that they can summon tears about it EVERY DAY?

  8. Flying*

    LW4, sounds like you were being managed out, possibly without good reason and certainly (assuming you didn’t miss any great detail!) without sufficient justification.

    1. Chrysanthemum Tea*

      Exactly what I thought. Managing someone out is terrible; it’s the refuge of incompetent managers. I wish it wasn’t so popular. There are justifications for using a PIP, but there is never justification for managing someone out.

  9. Former Employee*

    From LW4: “Throughout the four months I was on the PIP, my manager had relatively little feedback to share with me on my progress, did not complete my next quarterly performance review, and offered no resources on how I could improve. She did, however, send me a self-help book on finding my purpose in life.”

    I would want to get away ASAP from anyone who sent me a book on finding my purpose in life. I would job search like mad and when I resigned I would be very tempted to pretend that the book really helped me find my purpose in life which was why I was resigning – to explore the possibility of becoming [fill in the blank with something unusual – a member of an order of cloistered nuns; snake charmer; Maytag Repair Person; professional psychic, etc.]

  10. Down with PIPs*

    OP4, I am so sorry that you went through this. I absolutely loathe PIPs for this exact reason: they are all too often allowed to be either weaponised by bad managers as a bullying or power-tripping tactic, or they are allowed to be utilised in an unwarranted manner, usually to cover up someone else’s mistake/s (mostly at a high level).

    I’ve had a manager pull this stunt on me before (which was horrendous and ended with legal action and me receiving a settlement), and in HR, I’ve seen multiple managers try to inflict unwarranted PIPs on team members. Considering the liability issues, and how easy it is to prove in most cases that the PIPs were never needed, I remain bewildered that employers allow this to happen.

  11. nom de plume*

    OP2, I just want to commend you on being self-aware about the sort of manager you want to be, and realizing how your own manager’s style was affecting you. I’ve had that guy — little to naught human warmth, utterly uninterested in me as a three-dimensional person and not invested in helping me develop professionally — and I’m still trying to recover, months later.

    If you do manage again, it’s clear that you’re going to be great, because your instincts are spot on!

  12. Swiftie*

    “A few months after I left, I heard the COO simply stopped showing up after making a series of bizarre statements during a full-staff meeting. I don’t want to speculate on what was going on with him, but I do hope he gets the support he needs.”
    Ugh, that sounds totally not ominous at all!! :(

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