Employee recognition programs are a crucial part of great workplace cultures and are more important than ever during times of crisis and uncertainty (like the COVID pandemic). But what is the best way to recognize employees, especially while workers are remote or social distancing? How do you convince executives that employee recognition comes with a substantial ROI? Where do you begin to build an effective employee recognition program? How can you avoid problems like low participation or program burnout? Use this guide to get useful employee recognition ideas and create a successful, sustainable program that helps employees feel valued and appreciated every day.
In the past: employee recognition in the workplace was mostly associated with staff recognition to motivate team members. Common examples include:
• incentive programs
• employee of the month programs
• years of service awards
• gift card programs
• department or team-specific programs that rewards employees with treats, lunches, or small personal gifts to say “thank you” to a team member
Employee recognition initiatives were closely tied with compensation and benefits, and things like pay and gift cards were used as rewards. But in order to boost employee satisfaction and engagement, SHRM’s (Society for Human Resource Management) research indicates companies need to “tailor their retention and recruitment strategies around multiple elements, creating a total rewards program,” rather than only tying recognition to compensation.
Today: most companies see recognition and reward programs as a fundamental part of employee engagement, the employee experience, and workplace culture. Many organizations use employee recognition software to create a formal recognition program that combines a points system, a social wall, and meaningful awards to help employees feel appreciated.
Some modern employee recognition program examples include recognition for extra effort, above and beyond work, team initiatives, wellness, diversity and inclusion efforts, and innovation.
While there are many types of recognition, it’s important that a comprehensive recognition program for employees include recognition for work accomplishments small and large, service anniversary (or career celebration) awards, and company events that celebrate shared success.
This type of recognition helps you create a culture where celebrating workplace triumphs is an everyday way of life. It helps teams bond over shared accomplishments and deepens their connection to organizational purpose and goals. You can use this kind of recognition to say “thank you” or “great job” for day-to-day work, or to recognize above-and-beyond effort, personal victories, team triumphs, and major accomplishments. This type of recognition fuels positive momentum and helps employees feel part of a winning team. Think about both encouraging effort and rewarding results whenever employees make a difference people love.
Celebrate daily wins and strengthen teams with easy-to-use tools that enable recognition from anywhere and integrate into your culture.
Recognition to Celebrate Careers (also known as Recognition for Years of Service)
This type of recognition is more than just recognizing work anniversaries; it’s about celebrating life at work to foster a sense of belonging. It helps employees see how they fit into the organization by showcasing their career achievements over time and spotlighting their unique contributions to the team. It honors friendships and celebrates careers in a meaningful, memorable way.
Work anniversaries can be more meaningful, memorable, and fun if you celebrate them right. Collect comments, congratulations, and photos from peers and leaders in a keepsake like Yearbook.
Corporate events are opportunities to bring people together around a shared goal or achievement. This type of recognition helps communicate company values, create bonds, connect employees to one another, and make people feel part of something bigger. Whether it’s major company accomplishments or historical milestones you are celebrating, this type of recognition helps define your culture and rally people around a common purpose.
Every company event is a chance to bring people together. Give meaningful awards that will connect your people to your organization for years to come.
While employee rewards and recognition programs in the workplace are usually seen as a Human Resources tool, we find that the most effective employee recognition programs are part of a corporate-wide culture-enhancing initiative, and not just an HR-centric program.
Companies typically have employee recognition activities to engage employees, provide positive feedback, reward employees for hard work, and motivate and inspire them, especially when times are tough. But recognition can be part of something even bigger – creating a workplace culture where employees thrive.
Why does employee recognition matter? Employee recognition contributes to a great workplace culture, but it also impacts a company’s bottom line and improves business results in some very specific, scientifically proven ways. Employee recognition benefits range from employee motivation and satisfaction all the way to company performance.
1) Attracting talent
5) Innovation and performance
6) Build Inclusion
In today’s workplace, attracting top talent is a crucial competitive advantage. The best and brightest talent is looking for a workplace culture that recognizes and appreciates people who do great work.
A global survey of 200,000 job seekers asked employees to choose the most important attributes in a new job from a list of 26. The number one attribute was: my employer or manager shows “appreciation for my work”. Good relationship with colleagues, good work-life balance, and good relationships with leaders came after, with an attractive salary coming in at number 8.
Gallup says, “In today’s war for talent, organizations and leaders are looking for strategies to attract and retain their top performers while increasing organic growth and employee productivity. But in their search for new ideas and approaches, organizations could be overlooking one of the most easily executed strategies: employee recognition.”
According to the O.C. Tanner Institute, both leaders (48%) and employees (57%) say “making employees feel valued and appreciated” is the aspect of workplace culture that is most important to them. Recognition is a top priority for employees seeking jobs, and leaders who want to recruit the best talent for their organizations.
Employee recognition is important for improving and maintaining employee engagement and employee motivation. 78% of employees are highly engaged when they feel strong recognition from their organizations, compared to 34% of employees who are highly engaged in companies with weak recognition.
A LinkedIn study found:
• 69% of employees would work harder if their efforts were better recognized
• 80% of Millennials prefer on-the-spot recognition over formal performance reviews
And when asked what would cause you to do more great work, the top answer was “recognize me”, yet only 1 out of 5 employees strongly agree their leaders manage performance in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.
Employee engagement is how much of an employee’s discretionary effort there are willing to give you, and feeling appreciated plays a big role. When employees feel appreciated, they are happy, motivated, and inspired to do more.
The impact of recognition on turnover and retention is indisputable:
• Gallup found employees who are not adequately recognized are 2x more likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.
• Glassdoor reports 53% of employees would stay at their jobs longer if their employers showed them more appreciation
• Qualtrics says those who have managers that regularly acknowledge them for good work are 5 times more likely to stay
• The Harvard School of Public Policy found companies with peer-to-peer recognition are 35% more likely to report lower turnover.
Effectively recognizing years of service can help with retention as well. By having a service award program, companies can retain employees for 2-4 more years than companies without a service award program.
Employees say recognition would be an effective way of improving relationships with leaders at their organizations.
Recognition also impacts the 6 essential aspects of workplace culture: purpose, opportunity, success, wellbeing, appreciation, and leadership.
Recognition is a key strategy for companies and HR leaders to motivate employees to act out the company’s culture and values. By spotlighting those who live out the organization’s values, you inspire others to do the same.
Employee recognition doesn’t just make workers feel appreciated, it builds a workplace culture where people feel positive about their leaders, aligned to something greater, and an improved sense of growth, accomplishment, and overall wellbeing.
Recognition is more effective than a salary bonus at encouraging people to be more innovative and productive.
Employees who receive strong recognition are 33% more likely to be proactively innovating and generate 2x as many new ideas per month. They are also 2X more likely to be highly innovative and are also more likely to be working at 80% capacity or higher.
Companies have attributed employee recognition to improving sales, customer service, patient satisfaction, and even quality metrics.
Employee recognition, at its core, makes employees feel valued as individuals and appreciated for their unique skills and contributions. But when done well, recognition also helps employees feel like they fit in and belong in the organization. That they are part of your company. That they are included. 23% of employees feel a sense of belonging most when they are publicly recognized at work, but 31% of employees would look for a new job if they felt excluded at work.
Simply having a years of service program that celebrates and recognizes employee contributions over time can help people feel like they fit in and belong.
And that impact increases when employees experience recognition for years of service:
Leaders who give frequent, personalized recognition for extra effort and above and beyond work help employees feel more connected to the company, one another, and also are more likely to build inclusive cultures:
Employees need to feel seen and heard at work. Recognition is an easy, low cost, day to day way companies can reinforce the message that all employees are wanted and belong.
Bottom line: the more forms of recognition you do, and the more you recognize your employees, the more engaged and motivated your employees will be and the higher likelihood your organizations has to grow and be profitable.
Need some employee appreciation ideas? There are key best practices when it comes to giving employees recognition to ensure it is meaningful to the person who receives recognition. Whatever form of recognition you use, ensure the recognition given is:
1) Personal and genuine. It should not feel like a transaction, forced, or something you do to “check the box”.
2) Inclusive. All employees should have an equal opportunity to give and receive recognition, no matter their level, position, title, department, tenure, etc. Everyone in the organization should be able to receive recognition for great work they’ve done, and the criteria for recognition should be clear and equitable.
3) Specific. Describe what the individual did, the outcome of their work, why it exceeded expectations, how it made a difference, and how it impacted the team and organization. Generic statements like, “I heard you did a good job” take the meaning out of recognition.
4) Timely. Give recognition as soon as you see good work. Delaying recognition lessens its impact.
5) Frequent. Employees should be thanked or praised once a week if possible. Getting recognition only 1 or 2 times a year will not make someone feel appreciated. Sadly, only 3 in 10 employees say they’ve received recognition or praise in the past seven days.
6) Connected to purpose. Align recognition back to your organization’s purpose. Why did that individual’s work make a difference to the company? How does it further your organization’s purpose?
7) Presented in-person. Not left on someone’s desk or automatically emailed to them without a personal note, but presented in a meaningful and heartfelt way. Plan your words in advance and invite peers to participate. If you can’t be there physically in-person, use virtual recognition. Virtual employee appreciation can be just as impactful when done well. Wonder how to recognize employees virtually in a way that’s meaningful?
• Set aside a time for just the recognition
• Invite team members, leaders, and peers to participate and speak
• Use a fun, celebratory Zoom background
• Be creative in how you celebrate—send treats to the employee’s office or home, invite their family, tell stories, share pictures, etc.
8) Public. Public recognition is important—employees want their peers and leaders to know about their accomplishments. Public presentations not only showcase the employee’s work to others, but it also inspires observers of the recognition. It helps them see what behaviors and work are valued in your organization and makes them want to do more of the same.
Recognition is especially important during challenging times or moments of crisis. Whether it’s a global pandemic, societal unrest, natural disasters, economic strife, or internal company changes, recognition can help people feel connected and give them a sense of purpose when everything else feels uncertain.
During the 2020 pandemic, when employees were recognized in the past 7 days, they were 103% more likely to feel supported by the organization and 59% more likely to trust their leaders.
And 64% of employees say recognition and appreciation is even more important while working from home.
Unfortunately many companies turn to cutting recognition during crisis in an attempt to preserve budgets in times of less revenue. During the Covid-19 pandemic, organizations cut their service award programs by 17% and performance recognition programs by 20%. But cutting back on recognition leads to a:
1. Change the language. Rather than recognition being an automated transaction or a task that needs to be done by managers, flip the view. Recognition in times of crisis should be about seeing people as individuals and being grateful for what they are contributing.
2. Connect employees. In uncertain times, people want to feel connected; to their company, their teams, and something that matters. Use recognition to connect people to your company’s purpose, their own successes and accomplishments, and one another. Employees want to do work that matters, but a lack of recognition often invokes feelings of pointlessness, which exacerbates the stress, isolation, and uncertainty employees feel during crisis.
3. Find the silent heroes. Those who work hard quietly behind the scenes need appreciation even more when things are tough. Make a point to identify them and give them extra love.
4. Encourage giving recognition. Giving appreciation is just as impactful as receiving recognition and can help the giver feel more engaged and connected as well. Encourage your leaders and employees to give appreciation when they see great work happening, especially if people are apart.
5. Focus on gratitude.
In difficult times, it’s easier to lament and worry about what’s going wrong. News of layoffs, financial woes, or personal struggles can be overwhelming. So take time to highlight the good things that are happening in your company. Gratitude can help teams build resiliency and wellbeing and redirect their efforts to moving forward.
6. Create nurturing experiences. Sometimes a quick email of thanks is enough, but not during challenging times. Take a moment to create personal, nurturing, meaningful recognition experiences. Send care kits home, check in frequently, and use every opportunity to express true gratitude.
7. Recognize effort, not just results. In difficult times, achieving results may be harder. But that doesn’t mean employees aren’t working hard and putting in a lot more effort. You may want to shift what you recognize. Rather than results and metrics, show employees you appreciate the extra efforts they are putting in to maintain efficiency or work through the challenges.
Recognition during times of crisis may look different than normal. You may have to evolve how you do recognition. For example, BASF, one of the world’s largest chemical and related products producers, refocused what achievements they were recognizing to incorporate the extra efforts employees were giving during the pandemic. Important things to recognize during a time of crisis include:
• Embracing a positive attitude or lifting team member’s spirits
• Using collaboration tools effectively to keep the team connected
• Supporting team members in staying safe
• Being resourceful and creative
• Taking care of family obligations and still doing great work
• Quiet heroes who are working behind the scenes to make success happen
Puget Sound Energy also saw a need for special recognition during this unprecedented time and gave their IT team extra recognition for helping employees transition to remote work. They also sent regular emails to leaders encouraging them to use recognition in innovative ways, whether it’s boosting morale, strengthening connection, or celebrating important results for the company like operating compliance.
You may also be wondering what you should give as a reward for great work. Many people assume cash or gift cards are the best gifts for recognition, and while those things can be appropriate in some instances, they are certainly not the best recognition for every type of accomplishment. Cash is spent quickly and easily forgotten, there are negative tax implications to giving cash, and it can be awkward to present cash in a public setting. Gift cards can be personal for on-the-spot recognition, but are not meaningful enough for larger accomplishments or years of service recognition. It’s best to have a variety of awards available to give (and choose from) in different situations.
Include both monetary and non-monetary awards. Sometimes an ecard can be a perfect, budget-friendly way to say thanks, congratulations, or celebrate milestones and personal achievements.
• Verbal thank you
• Handwritten thank you note
• Lunches/Dinners out
• Points in a point-based program
• On the spot awards like gift cards, treats, personal items
• Merchandise awards
• Travel, concert and event tickets, experiences
• Charitable giving
• Symbolic awards
• Cash awards
• Personal note of congratulations from CEO or senior leader
• Personalized brochure with messages and comments from peers and leaders
• Symbolic award to represent the years of service and connect back to something meaningful to the company
• Choice of award item (high end jewelry, the latest electronics, upscale home accessories, the hottest leisure/sports items, sophisticated travel accessories, etc.)
• Nice celebration or meal out
For more employee recognition award examples to celebrate years of service, check out cool custom awards, lifestyle gifts, and other secrets to great service awards:
Don’t be afraid to be creative in your employee appreciation ideas. The most important thing to remember is to make the award, and the presentation of the recognition, personal and genuine.
Not sure how a great program comes together? Check out 4 great employee recognition program examples from some of the best companies in the world:
GE Appliances’ recognition program to reward employee performance looks and feels like them. From the brushed nickel/steel look in their recognition platform branding that replicates their product finishes to the employee photos that are used, everything looks and feels like the GE brand and culture.
“Your recognition solution should reflect who you are. The look and feel, examples, photos…it’s an extension of us at GE Appliances. Companies should make recognition a part of their value proposition and engagement strategy—make it about who you are.”
– Natalie Snyder, Senior Director, Compensation and Benefits
The recognition tools themselves are easy to use, and anyone in the company can nominate another employee for an award. Managers are enabled to approve awards quickly and easily. HR leaders run regular reports to highlight employee accomplishments and share stories. They also conduct specific campaigns to remind people to recognize. All recognition given ties back to the company values.
The results have been incredible. Recognition has had an impact on both employee engagement survey results and employee attrition. In fact, the likelihood of attrition decreased 73% when employees received at least one eCard a month, and 79% when employees receive one nomination a month. Overall, the risk of attrition was reduced by 58% when an employee received any type of recognition in the prior month.
2) Example employee recognition program for service awards: Yorkshire Building Society
Although recognizing great work was always a part of the culture at YBS, the company found that their previous program wasn’t stretching across all supporting functions. While customer-facing colleagues were often recognized, internal colleagues such as HR, finance, and other important supporting roles were often left out. So YBS modified their career anniversary program from only celebrating an employee’s 25th anniversary to celebrating an employee more often starting at 5 years.
YBS worked with O.C. Tanner to create a personalized Yearbook for each employee to receive on their major anniversaries. The Yearbooks include personalized congratulations, photos, and messages from leaders and peers.
Along with a personalized Yearbook, YBS also implemented a personalized pin that sports the Society’s logo and the amount of time each employee has been with YBS. Overall, by implementing a genuine way to not only recognize everyone at YBS for their great work, but for just being them, YBS created a culture of inclusiveness, trust, and overall appreciation.
“It really does make you proud to see what happens day to day and have the opportunity to share that in the Yearbooks. It truly is a rich part of the culture. As for a return on investment, it's priceless. It doesn't cost a huge amount to do something like this and the benefits you see day to day, and how people respond to the feedback they get, the thanks they get, it's just fantastic.” –Mike Regnier, CEO, YBS
3) Example employee recognition program for your offline population: Niagara Casinos
With over 3,000 offline employees creating memorable experiences for their casino guests, Niagara Casinos knew their recognition program had to include options for workers on the floor. So they made sure their recognition program, Great People Celebrations, would have several components to make recognition accessible to all employees: peer-to-peer recognition as well as offline and mobile tools.
The company conducted focus groups to get feedback from employees, then designed a program that would look and feel like Niagara Casinos and also reinforce their company values. To launch the new recognition program, they gave away bags of treats with instructions on how to access the system, held manager information session to preview the new tools, and included the program in their new hire orientation.
To further include their offline employees, live streams of eCard and award descriptions are played on plasma screens in employee areas, like cafeterias, on all properties so employees can see the great work happening and their peers being recognized. These efforts to extend recognition to all employees in the company has resulted in 93% of employees who are likely to stay and 100% of employees feeling appreciated after receiving recognition.
“You can't deliver a remarkable customer experience without employees that are committed and connected to the organization. We believe that recognizing employees that go above and beyond is a strategic imperative for our business because when done right, it pays dividends.” - Maria Graham, Vice President Human Resources & Organizational Development
4) Example employee recognition program for front-line employees: Centra Health
Centra Health transformed their employee experience to match their world-class patient experience. They revamped their recognition program to make sure recognition was a regular part of the employee experience and built relationships among people.
The “Thanks to You” recognition program isn’t just another online program or website at Centra Health. The mobile app is helpful in reaching their busy, offline population and constant reminders—emails, screen savers on shared kiosks, huddle boards in every unit, leader training, new leader packets—have contributed to a steady 70%+ engagement in the program itself.
The company reinforces and communicates about recognition throughout various employee touchpoints: during new hire orientation, leadership development trainings, and major healthcare events like healthcare week, nurse’s week, radiology week, etc. They do roadshows across the system and leverage champions placed across the organization to bring awareness and encourage team members to give recognition.
Centra Health’s efforts have impacted both employee engagement and turnover. An analysis found an increase in nominations received equaled a 19% decrease in the odds of attrition, and an increase in eCards received equaled a 27% decrease in odds of attrition.
“Recognition is on purpose and by design. We now recognize the hands and feet of people doing important work. We are able to say this is part of who we are. We can’t promote our mission—Excellent Care for Life—if we don’t do that for our people. The Thanks to You program celebrates employees as individuals and honors their skills and talents.” - Karen Ackerman, Vice President of Human Resources, Centra Health
If you’ve made it to here, you’re probably wondering: how do you create a recognition program? Where do you start? Here are a few things to consider when starting a recognition program:
• Determine your employee recognition criteria
• Provide tools for employee recognition activities
• Communicate, educate, and inspire
• Get Senior Leadership Buy-in and Commitment
• Choose the right partner
- What do you want to recognize? Think about what you want to recognize, and why. Start by identifying your organization’s purpose, values, and what’s most important to you. What behaviors and accomplishments best align with your values and further your organization’s purpose?
- How can everyone have a chance to be recognized? Ensure everyone gets the opportunity to give and receive. The criteria for recognition should be very clear, and include all employees and locations, no matter the tenure, level, function, or area.
- Incorporate both manager and peer to peer recognition. Receiving recognition from both leaders and peers is meaningful to an employee, and the very act of giving recognition can impact engagement, retention, and culture for those who give.
Once you’ve identified the “why”, you must decide the “how”.
- Put recognition in the flow of work. Think about the tools you want to use: the type of technology, mobile tools, offline tools, etc. Put recognition tools in apps and sites your employees are already using for work, so they don’t have to leave the flow of work to give and receive recognition.
- Match awards to accomplishments. What awards do you want to have available? Beware of recognition programs with a one-size-fits-all strategy (for example, gift card only programs, cash only programs, etc.), as not all employees have the same wants and needs.
- Create purposeful, meaningful, personal experiences. Don’t forget about the personal experience, which can be just as important as the award itself. You’ll want to encourage leaders and peers to create recognition moments for recipients, with a highly personal and genuine presentation that can include peers.
Communicate the what. Communication and training will be crucial parts of starting a recognition program. You’ll want employees to be excited about your new recognition program, so good communication and a specific recognition brand is key. Give them tangible employee appreciation ideas they can use every day. Think about creative employee recognition program names that reflect your organization’s purpose and brand and inspire employees.
What are some good employee recognition program names? A rally cry that inspire your people, or a play on words that connects the program to your company history or brand. Just be sure the name is creative, concise, and reflects you.
Educate the why and how. Ongoing communication and reminders about your program will ensure all employees are aware of the tools available, understand the importance of recognition, and know how to give. Leadership training should teach leaders why recognition is important, and how to give recognition in a meaningful way. Encourage leaders to use storytelling to reinforce your organization’s purpose and align employees’ work to that purpose.
- I am constantly impressed by your performance. Thank you for your hard work!
- Only an exemplary employee inspires his boss on a daily basis. You are that employee. Thank you for setting such a great example for everyone in our company!
- I’m so grateful that you always take the time to help your coworkers. It’s really made our team come together.
- Your unique perspective adds so much to our team. We’re so grateful to have you with us!
- Your extraordinary attention to detail took this project to another level!
- Your sense of humor makes coming to work an absolute delight. Thank you for keeping our spirits high!
- You’ve been crushing your personal goals lately. Awesome job!
- I’m so grateful that you’re not afraid to ask questions! It helps me be a better leader.
- I don’t know how we could have made it through this year without you! Happy workplace anniversary!
Inspire and refresh often. Don’t let your program get stale after the first year. Introduce new employee recognition ideas, activities, awards, and communication campaigns. Keep the energy and excitement of your program up, and recognition top of mind.
The most important aspect of a recognition program is senior leadership buy-in and commitment. Your program will not succeed if executives are not bought into the importance of recognition, encourage your people to recognize, and role model how recognition is done. You won’t be able to secure the needed budget and resources for recognition, and your program will become another HR perk instead of a culture-building initiative.
Calculate your return on investment (ROI). By showing senior leaders the ROI of your employee recognition efforts, you’ll earn their continued commitment and investment. Look at who is giving and receiving recognition, how recognition is impacting culture and engagement, and the impact of recognition on business metrics like retention, customer service, quality, and sales.
If finding a recognition program software or building a recognition program seems daunting, find a partner to help you. Look for an established recognition provider that has proven experience working with companies like yours, in industries like yours. Lean on them to provide best practices in program design, awards, communication, training, measurement, and culture consulting. Look for a partner with a solution that has long term impact, can grow your recognition initiatives, and is more than just a social wall—someone who can truly help you embed recognition into your workplace culture.
· Budget constraints
· Employees have low perceived value
· Recognition has a lower priority than other business initiatives and is not aligned to main business and workforce priorities
· No ongoing communication or reminders of the program
· No measurement or calculated ROI
How to ensure recognition programs succeed:
1) Maintain leadership commitment. Share the ROI of recognition with executives, and reinforce the need for their support and commitment. Position recognition as a company culture initiative and not just an HR tool in order to gain the highest levels of budget and resources.
2) Provide meaningful, easy to use recognition tools. If the recognition is not meaningful (with appealing awards and personal presentations), or easy to use, organizations risk underutilization of the program.
3) Don’t just “set it and forget it”. Refresh solutions often so they don’t get stale. Use communication and reminders to maintain awareness and share the impact of the program. Train managers on the best ways to recognize their people. Encourage peer to peer recognition. Utilize recognition champions: employees and leaders who are specially trained to keep the energy and excitement of recognition alive.
When you recognize your people for their great work and effort, you’ll build a workplace culture where employee feel appreciated, inspired, and thrive.
Ready to start? Download our step-by-step guide to building an effective recognition solution. or check out Culture Cloud, our suite of culture-building apps and recognition solutions that help people thrive at work.
More Employee Recognition Resources
There are so many different ways to recognize, appreciate, and celebrate your employees. Here are more resources for guidance:
• Guide to Employee Recognition Programs
• 11 Employee Recognition Ideas
• 22 Awesome Employee Recognition Gift Ideas
• 9 Tips for How to Choose Employee Recognition Software
• Heartfelt Employee Appreciation Quotes to Say "Thank You"
• Benefits of Peer to Peer Recognition
• Best Practices for Virtual Employee Recognition
• Guide to Years of Service Awards
• Tips to Celebrate Work Anniversaries
• Employee Recognition in the Modern Workplace
• Victories: Modern Recognition Software
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