Reference checks have long been an essential part of the hiring process. Yet these days referencing is often seen as a lengthy and frustrating formality. At Zinc, we believe the reference checking process can be much better. We want to help you to get the most out of reference checks, whether you are a hiring manager or recruiter, candidate, or referee.
This guide clarifies the reference checking process and answers any burning questions you may have, such as, ‘at what point in the interview process should we check the candidate’s references?’ and ‘who are the best people to ask for a reference?’
Referencing: The basics
Reference checks have long been part of the hiring process. The kind of information collected and how in-depth the checks are can vary between companies, industries and regions. This section gives you the low-down on what reference checks involve and who can provide references.
What does it mean when a recruiter asks to check a candidate’s references?
When a potential employer asks for references, they are asking for contact details of people who can give more information about the candidates they are hiring. At the most basic level, employers carry out reference checks to ensure that the candidate has provided correct information about their past work or studies, e.g. their job title or the dates they worked or the course they took. Often, this employment verification is all that companies seek. Employment verification is the basis of every reference, but referencing practices do vary depending on the company, the industry, the location and the seniority of the job. Read on to find out more.
What happens when an employer checks references?
Referencing practices vary wildly between organisations depending on the size of the company and the industry, some only checking references for senior positions.
When work reference checks are conducted, the recruiter usually asks for details of people (referees) who can vouch for the candidate’s skills, experience and ability to do the job. Usually, they will then ask the referees to verify the candidate’s work details and in some cases they will ask further questions about the candidate.
Some hiring managers recognise that references can be a valuable resource and will ask more detailed questions to gain informed insights into the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and how the candidate would fit within or add to their company culture.
We have found that if referees are contacted pre-offer, the references can facilitate decision making in the hiring process through extracting competency information. If referees are contacted post-offer, the reference is more useful if hiring managers to ask questions focused on work style and culture to help personalise onboarding.
For some positions, further background checks are also conducted for compliance and safety reasons, for example financial checks or criminal record checks, but these should not be regarded as references.
Who can provide references?
A person who provides a reference is called a referee. A referee is someone who can confirm a candidate’s experience. We’ve put together this list of definitions to give you an idea of the different kinds of referees companies ask for and we weigh up the pros and cons of each type.
Often these terms can feel old fashioned and don’t necessarily reflect today’s working world. Additionally, the terminology that people use to refer to different types of referees varies between different industries and geographical areas, so if you are unsure of the kind of referee you need, it is best to check with the person who is asking for your references.
Professional reference Professional references are endorsements from someone who can confirm your qualifications, experience and overall suitability for a job. Depending on the company, a professional reference may refer to one of three different kinds of reference:
Professional (HR): This is the kind of reference given by your previous company’s HR department. This kind of reference verifies job title, dates and not much else. For some companies, this is the only kind of reference they will formally give.
Professional (Character): Managers or other colleagues may offer to give a more detailed reference, particularly where it is company policy to only give an HR reference. This kind of reference is sometimes called a personal reference, but for clarity we will refer to this kind of reference as a professional (character) reference. When choosing a professional (character) referee, candidates with work experience will typically give the details of past employers, line managers, supervisors, or respected colleagues as referees. Newly qualified candidates may ask a teacher or university lecturer to vouch for their abilities in place of a work colleague. Candidates who were self-employed may also ask clients or vendors to vouch for their skills and experience.
Professional (Recruiter): 3rd party agency recruiters that have placed you in a position may also be used as referees to provide employment verification references. Recruiters can verify work details but they can’t give detailed comments on the candidate’s performance.
Backchannel reference: Backchannel (also known as backdoor) references are where hiring managers identify mutual connections and contact them to discuss the candidate’s suitability for the role. This may be done through checking social media such as LinkedIn for mutual connections or a mutual contact at a company that the candidate has worked with. This is usually the most informal kind of reference check.
Personal reference: A personal reference is from a referee who knows the candidate in a personal, not professional manner. These references may be provided when the candidate has no work experience, for example if they have just graduated from school or university, or if the candidate is making a career change. In some cases, this type of reference is called a character reference.
There are other cases outside of work that also require references. For example, landlords may ask for references from potential tenants, universities may ask for reference letters for prospective students. This guide focuses on references for employment purposes.
How does a company check references?
There are multiple ways to collect a reference. How a reference is collected depends on the company, industry and geographical area. Here are the main methods for collecting references:
Reference letters are the most traditional but they can take a long time and mean added paperwork for the hiring manager. When referencing is done via email, it is almost always done through PDF or Word attachments whether this is through asking questions or sending an online form for the referee to fill in.
This can be the easiest way to collect a reference if the referee answers and is willing to speak. This can be time-consuming and difficult to schedule. Sometimes you won’t be able to get hold of the referee or you’ll being passed to HR.
The referee may feel they can speak more candidly, but as the reference isn’t be written down and you’ll only be able to refer back to the notes you make.
Automated referencing software:
There are now technology solutions for referencing that automate the process from submitting the referee contact details to collecting the references. For example, Zinc’s referencing tool allows candidates to keep their referee details private and securely stores the reference, allowing the candidate to share it with whomever they choose and reuse it throughout their career. Automating this process frees up time so they can focus on other tasks.
Third party referencing services:
These are companies that specialise in the practice of referencing. They may do any of the above or they may use purpose-built software.
Why do recruiters ask for more than one referee?
Asking for more than one referee is common practice. It helps the recruiter to be certain the information they have about the candidate is true. If more than one person verifies what the candidate has told them, the recruiter can be more confident in making their hiring decisions. It also provides a more rounded picture of the candidate by collecting different perspectives and information about how they performed in different roles.
The amount of references a recruiter asks for varies depending on the industry, for example, many financial institutions will need reference checks covering 5 years of employment due to FCA guidelines. Some references that come back are merely date confirmations, so the recruiter may want to ask another referee for more detailed information.
Where can I get legal advice regarding references?
If you think the law has been broken around a reference check you have been involved in, for example if something false or misleading has been said in a reference, you may want to challenge this. It may be advisable first to take it up with the person concerned to see if you can agree on a solution. If you cannot resolve the issue through talking with them, you may wish to gain legal counsel. Below are some free resources that may help:
United States of America: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/employee-rights-book/chapter9-6.html
Reference tips for hiring managers and recruiters
With technological advancements in almost all areas of the working world, referencing practices tend to be steeped in policy and can feel archaic. This section answers your questions and gives you some tips for how you can bring referencing into the 21st century so you can get the most out of your reference checks.
In this section we answer your questions and provide you with a referencing checklist.
Why should hiring managers check references?
In the UK, reference checking has somewhat fallen out of fashion. It’s regarded as something companies feel they ought to do but in reality, it is often seen as a maligned formality, only conducted for compliance reasons. Some hiring managers feel reference checks don’t give useful information beyond confirming what the candidate has already told them, and that’s if they choose to reference at all. At Zinc we believe referencing can be better, more open and more useful for all parties involved. If you get your reference checks right, you can gain useful insights that can really help you make the right hiring decisions and feed into more areas of the journey than you might have first thought.
There are new practices and technologies that you can adopt to update your referencing practices and get the most out of referencing such as automated referencing tools and backchannel referencing. Today, candidates are better than ever at interviewing so it’s even harder to evaluate whether the candidate can walk the talk. There is also research showing that around 10% of candidates will lie on their CV—a concerning finding for recruiters. This is even more reason for you to make the most of your reference checks to ensure you’re hiring the right person.
How can reference checks be used in the hiring process?
Checking references can be a key opportunity for you to ensure you’re hiring the right person. Reference checks can feed into multiple parts of the hiring journey such as:
Compliance. The most common reason for checking references is for compliance reasons as evidence of due diligence. In this case, references can be used to verify that the candidate is who they say they are and has not engaged in corrupt activity.
Further assessment and screening. References can be used to check that candidate’s skills, abilities and competencies match or exceed what the candidate has shown in their CV and interview.
Onboarding and performance management. You can ask referees about preferred management styles, work styles and values to help personalise onboarding journeys. References can be used to help you decide how much structure to give the new hire, how best to incentivise them and to identify environments they will excel in.
At what point in my hiring process should I check references?
Checking references not only gives you the chance to verify the information you have about your candidate, if done right, they can also give you a deeper insight on the candidate in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, how they will fit in your team, what they could add to your team and even what kind of management styles the candidate would be best suited to. Maximising your reference checks like this could facilitate on-boarding, helping you personalise your candidate’s journey, giving them a positive experience. How you want to use the references can dictate when in the hiring process you reference. Zinc has developed different types of referencing tools specific to these scenarios and more.
Pre-offer: referencing for assessment. If you want to use references to check a candidate’s competencies, we recommend referencing earlier in the process, either before you interview or before you make an offer. This is so the references can be used to help you decide between candidates based on their capabilities. If you reference for assessment after making an offer and you find that their competencies do not match their CV or how well they interviewed, you may have to go through the awkward process of withdrawing an offer.
Post-offer: referencing for onboarding. If you want to find out how to best integrate your new hire into your team, you can use post-offer reference checks for onboarding purposes. Asking the referees about the candidate’s work styles, preferred management styles, culture and values can help you personalise their onboarding experience and anticipate any potential issues. Positive onboarding experiences lead to higher rates of retention, so it makes sense to make the most of your reference checks in this way.
What should I look for when referencing?
Firstly, when carrying out a reference check, you should look for verification of your candidate’s work history, checking that the job titles, dates, and type of work they put on their CV are correct. Sometimes this is all you will want or need to check.
If you need to find out more detailed information about your candidate, the reference check can be an opportunity for you to gain relevant insights to inform your hiring decisions.Referencing can help get extra information in many different areas. Your hiring process can help define what information to try to get from referencing Think about your company and the needs and challenges of the particular team that you are hiring for. You could ask questions that will help onboarding, for example about management styles and work environments. If culture is a prominent factor in your hiring process, then you may want to ask questions tailored to your company’s values.
If this sounds useful, but you have concerns that it may be too time consuming or you’re unsure how to go about collecting this kind of information, there are 3rd party referencing companies that can conduct the reference checks on your behalf. Zinc offers an automated referencing service with customisable questions so you can maximise your reference checks without any additional hassle.
What questions should I ask when referencing?
The most common questions for recruiters to ask referees are around verifying the candidate’s experience, such as their role and dates worked. If the reference check is going to be used to help inform your hiring decisions, you might want to think about asking more detailed questions around their skills, experience and work styles. If you are interested in nurturing your company culture, you can ask questions with this in mind. Have a look at Zinc’s reference question generator to get some ideas for culture-oriented questions you could ask.
What can’t I ask when referencing?
It would be a good idea steer clear from any topics that could lead to discrimination. Avoid questions about the candidate’s race, religion, sexuality, marital status, gender, physical health or disability as these should not affect your hiring decisions. If you choose not to hire a candidate after asking the referee about these topics you may be entering murky legal waters.
You may also want to be wary of subjective, closed questions such as “would you rehire this person” because the referee’s response may be very subjective and not necessarily reflect the candidate’s ability to do the job they are applying for.
Do I need consent to collect a reference?
As a reference is classed as personal data, you may need to prove you have consent from the candidate to collect the reference. Instead of asking the candidate for referee details verbally, try asking via email and explicitly ask them if they consent to you contacting their referee on their behalf. This will mean that you have their written response as proof. Reference data can be considered to have two owners: the candidate and the referee. You should take both owners into account when ensuring your referencing practices are compliant with data protection rules such as GDPR.
What do I do if I can’t contact a referee?
A common problem that you may run into when collecting a reference is not being able to contact the referee directly. This could be for one of two reasons: that you are handed over to HR rather than the referee directly, or that the referee has left the company.
In many large companies, the HR department will be responsible for providing references, but as mentioned above, an HR reference may only be able to give you basic employment details such as dates and job title. If you want to speak directly with the referee, try to be persistent and you may be transferred to the right person. If this doesn’t work, ask the candidate to provide the referee’s personal work email and, if possible, a direct phone number to ensure that you get through to the person you need to speak to.
You may also find that when you try to contact the referee at their workplace, they have left the company. If this happens and the HR department can’t give you the referee’s new contact details, you will have to go back to your candidate to ask for up-to-date details or for the contact details of a different referee. This may also be a sign that your candidate has not contacted them recently to ask if they are happy to give a reference.
When do most companies check references for a job candidate?
When companies check references, it is most common for the check to be done after the candidate has been conditionally offered the role. Many employers will check references once an offer has been made for compliance reasons. Some hiring managers check a candidate’s references prior to making an offer. This is so they can use the references to help inform their hiring decisions, whether that be to decide between candidates or designing onboarding experiences.
We’ve found that the stage that employers conduct references changes affects the usefulness of different kinds of referencing information. For example, competency-based questions can be useful if the reference has been conducted pre-offer as it can help differentiate between candidates, however it’s not so useful once offer has been made. Culture-based questions can be incredibly useful once an offer has been made as this information can be used to personalise onboarding journeys to help a new hire succeed, but there aren’t many situations where these kinds of questions are useful when asked pre-offer as they don’t help assess a candidate for their ability to do the job. It’s for these reasons that Zinc has developed different referencing tools so you can get the most out of your reference checks.
How do different companies check references?
As you may already know, referencing practices do vary from company to company across regions and industries. Here’s a broad overview of how different sized companies generally reference.
Large companies will commonly use 3rd parties or have a on-boarding team which do compliance style referencing.
Mid-size companies will also use 3rd parties or will check references only on senior roles.
Small companies will either have Recruiters or Hiring Managers contact referees up and collect references over the phone or email.
How to spot a fake reference
Research has shown that more than half of UK employees will lie or leave out important information on their CVs when applying for jobs. Even more worrying is the rise of companies who will provide a fake reference for a fee. This is concerning news for both recruiters and hiring managers who need to trust that the people they are hiring are genuine.
Checking references is one way to ensure your prospective hire is legitimate. Here are a few measures you can take to ensure that your candidate’s references are authentic.
If you haven’t heard of the candidate’s previous company before, search for them online. Look for a company website, a Google Maps entry or a LinkedIn company profile. If you can find a phone number to call, check the area code matches where they should be.
If you don’t recognise the company where the candidate claims to have worked, you can check if it is legally registered. How you do this will vary depending on where in the world the company is based. For example, in the USA, companies are registered at the State level. You should be able to find information about US companies on each State’s Secretary of State website. In the UK, you can find information about registered companies through Companies House.
Nominate a specific references—ask to contact previous co-workers other than the ones the candidate has listed as their referees. This is classed as a backchannel reference (see: who can provide references?). You could also check the company website or LinkedIn for employees who worked at the same time as your candidate; you may even find a mutual connection who you can speak with.
Your referencing checklist:
Decide what kind of reference you need and your overall objectives.
Decide when you want to conduct the reference, before or after you make an offer.
Decide what questions you want to ask the referee.
Ask the candidate for appropriate contact details.
Contact the referees or use a 3rd party referencing provider to collect the references for you.
Reference tips for candidates
As a candidate, the reference check can seem like a secretive process where your prospective employer speaks about you to your past employer. It can be confusing to know who to give as a reference, how to ask for a reference and whether you can view your reference. This section answers these questions and more.
Who should I give as my references?
Anyone who can vouch for your professional capability can provide a reference for you. The best person to provide a reference is someone who has managed you or whom you worked closely with such as a supervisor or a manager. Friends and family are rarely considered to be appropriate referees. Your future employer will want to verify your work experience and capabilities. While friends and family may be happy to talk positively about you, they may not be able to give the professional insights necessary to inform your interview process.
See also: Who can provide references?
What if I don’t have any professional references? (no experience)
If you have no work experience, for example if you have just left school or university, you may not have a past employer to ask to give you a reference. If this is the case for you, you should talk with your prospective employer and ask them what kind of reference they will accept. Here are a few suggestions for some suitable non-professional referees.
If you have recently finished education, you could consider asking a teacher or lecturer who you have a good relationship with. A particularly useful referee would be someone who taught you or supervised you on an important project, paper or dissertation.
If you have been part of any youth groups, you could ask a youth leader to give you a reference.
If you have volunteered for any local groups, charities or projects, you could ask a supervisor or team leader from one of these projects to give you a reference.
Alternatively if you know someone of good standing in the community, for example a local councillor, you could ask them to give you a reference.
How do I ask for a reference?
Once you have identified a few people who may be willing to give you a reference, you should contact them to ask them if they will be happy to be contacted by your prospective employer. Getting their consent is important, so you may want to do this in writing via email. You can also take this opportunity to remind them about relevant skills you demonstrated or projects you worked on while you were working with them. If they agree, remember to thank them for giving their time to help you.
Why do recruiters ask for 2-5 references?
Recruiters usually ask for more than one reference as a safeguard when verifying the information a candidate has given them. Taking on a new member of staff always carries a certain amount of risk, so if more than one external person confirms the information the candidate has given them, they can be more confident in their hiring decisions. They also may be asking for compliance reasons as some industries such as finance require reference checks spanning a certain number of years.
Will my new employer accept a written reference?
Reference letters are not the same as a future employer or 3rd party provider directly contacting your referees. Your recruiter or hiring manager may wish to ask questions specific to the role you are interviewing for, so a reference letter may not be enough to secure you the role. If you have a reference letter—either a physical letter or a Word/PDF document—there is no harm in asking if your future employer will accept it. Don’t be disheartened if they decline, it simply means they have their own referencing practices that they wish to follow.
Additionally, a reference letter may be harder to validate than a verified email chain from the referee’s company email address or a digital verified reference, so you may wish to consider one of these methods instead of a letter.
Can I view my references?
Your references are classed as your personal data. Since 2018, in the UK and EU, GDPR states that you have a right to access your personal data held by companies for free. If you want to see your reference, you have the right to ask the relevant department in the company to provide you with the reference or any notes made from a telephone call.
In other areas of the world, you can ask to see your references, but the company may not be legally obliged to show you your reference.
There are some digital tools that allow job applicants to collect, view and reuse their references. For example, Zinc allows users to collect verified references and share them with prospective employers. Zinc references are stored on the blockchain so they are everlasting.
Are references for work confidential?
When references are collected as part of the hiring process, your recruiter or hiring manager may need to share your references with someone else in the company. Often many people are involved in the hiring decision so they will be sharing information about all candidates with the relevant people within their company.
What can I do if my previous employer gives a bad reference?
References must be fair, accurate and not misleading. If you think your referee has said something false or discriminatory, you can ask to view the reference. If you believe that this reference has cost you the job, you may want to talk to your referee to ask them why they put what they did and to not do this in future. If their reference is deliberately false or misleading, you may be able to challenge them.
If you are not able to come to an agreement with your referee to write a more fair and accurate reference, you may want to consider asking someone else to give you a reference. This section may help you decide who to ask.
What does it mean when HR calls after a reference check?
There are a few scenarios that could be happening here. The best scenario is that HR have satisfactorily checked your references and would like to make you an offer. Another scenario could be that they have not been able to contact your referees and want to ask you for alternative people they can contact to verify your history. There is also the possibility that they have been able to contact your referees and they weren’t satisfactory. It could be that something came up in the reference check that they want to discuss with you, or they have decided not to make you an offer.
Why do many companies have a policy against giving references?
Some companies refuse to give a reference usually so they can avoid any liability. In some industries such as the financial industry, this is not allowed and you can challenge an employer who refuses to give a reference.If your previous company has refused to give you a reference and is not in an industry where providing a reference is mandatory, you may have to think about other people who can give you a reference. The section “Who can provide references?” can help you decide who it would be appropriate to ask.
Can I get away with giving fake references?
Giving a fake reference is a dishonest activity that can get you in trouble further down the line. If you are hired after giving a fake reference and your company finds out, it can be grounds for dismissal. While it is true that many people have got away with giving fake references, these days are numbered. Hiring managers are turning to 3rd party companies using new technologies to verify their references. If you feel you need to fake a reference for a particular job it might be worth considering if the role is suitable for you in the first place.
Reference tips for referees
If you are providing a reference for a former colleague or employee, you may have questions about what kind of information you can give in a reference and any legal implications. This section answers your questions and more.
What can and can’t I say in a reference?
When providing a reference, what you say must be fair and accurate and it should not lead to discrimination, so bare this in mind when giving a reference. There are also local laws that you may need to take into account.
In the US, there are restrictions on what can and can’t be disclosed to potential employers in a reference, varying from reasons for termination or separation to professional conduct. These laws vary by state, so if you are unsure, it would be wise to check what you can and can’t say.
In the UK, workers may have the right to challenge a reference if they think it was unfair or misleading, particularly if they can prove it cost them a job.
If you want to give a more detailed, positive reference, include descriptions of when you worked together, projects you worked on and the candidate’s strengths in these situations. You could also include constructive criticism and advice for how to get the most out of the candidate, for example by including management styles or work situations they would thrive in or would not be suited to. Hiring managers will really value any honest and fair information you can give.
What should I do if I’m asked to provide a job reference I don't want to give?
Whether or not you are able to refuse giving a reference depends on the contract the candidate had with your company, the industry you operate in and local laws.
If their employment contract says the candidate must be given a reference, you have to comply. Some industries also state that you must give a reference (sometimes within a particular time-frame), such as finance or healthcare.
If the law does not dictate that you have to give a reference, then you are able to refuse giving a reference. It would help the candidate if you could tell them why you don’t want to be put down as a reference, for example if you don’t think you know their skills and experience well enough to recommend them.
Do previous employers have to provide a reference?
The answer to this depends on your industry or geographical area. In some US states, certain industries are required to provide a reference within a specific time period or candidates have a specific time frame within which they can request a reference. You should check local laws to see whether you are obliged to provide a reference or not. If you don’t want to provide a reference for the candidate, it would be helpful if you could explain your reasons why so they can select a more appropriate referee.
Could I be held liable if I give a bad reference?
You should ensure that what you say in your reference is true and fair. You could be held liable if you deliberately include anything that is false or misleading. As always, laws vary between countries and between states. If you are unsure, you should check your local laws or gain legal advice.
How quickly do I need to provide a reference?
Depending on your industry, your company policy or local laws, you may need to respond to a reference within a certain time period, as, for example, in some US states. Job offers are often made on the condition that the candidate’s references are satisfactory, so responding as quickly as possible could be put the candidate in a more favourable position.
What can recruiters ask when checking references?
When collecting references, most recruiters will ask basic information about the candidate such as job title, and duration of service. They may also want to confirm the candidate’s duties and responsibilities. Some recruiters may want to probe a little further into the candidate’s skills, abilities and aptitudes to inform their hiring or onboarding decisions.
Watch out for questions that could lead to discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sexuality, marital status or gender. For example, questions such as “how many sick days did the candidate take?”, “does the candidate plan on having children soon?” or “how would you rate the attractiveness of the candidate?” could lead to discriminatory decisions. If you respond, you could be held liable, so it is best to decline answering these questions.
Who needs to provide consent before checking references?
To collect a reference, you need the consent of both the candidate and the referee. Reference data can be considered to have dual ownership as even though it is the referee’s words, the reference contains information about the candidate, so this is classed as their data too. You will also need the consent of both parties to store the references.
Can I give a bad reference?
Legally, references need to be true and fair accounts that are not deliberately misleading. In some cases, employers can give details such as reasons for termination and any disciplinaries, while these may not be favourable they are not usually illegal. If you are unsure, you may want to seek legal advice.
How does GDPR affect reference checking?
GDPR is legislation in the EU around data protection. How you collect and store references in the EU must be compliant with GDPR. You can read the full guidelines here, but the main thing you need to consider is consent to collect the reference and to store the reference. References are classed as the personal data of both the referee and the candidate meaning both have a claim to ask to view it and both have a claim to ask for it to be deleted.
Recruiters—it is your responsibility to instruct the candidate to ask for the referee’s consent to both pass on the referee’s contact details and to collect the reference. This will make it easier for you to collect the reference as the referee will be expecting you to get in touch.
One advantage of digital references using decentralised storage is that you don’t need to worry about deleting data from your personal drive or requesting permission to store data for example as a folder of PDFs or tracking information in email conversations.
Referencing practices vary between companies, industries and countries. Because of this, the process can feel quite daunting leading to some companies dropping the reference practice altogether. At Zinc, we believe referencing can be better. It can be more transparent, simple and productive for everyone involved. We hope this guide has helped clarify the referencing process, whether you are looking for a job, providing a reference or recruiting.
If you would like to join the referencing revolution, book a demo to see how Zinc’s automated referencing tools can help you maximise your reference checks.
This guide is for general information only. Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information on this site is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and we do not accept any liability for error or omission. This guide does not constitute legal advice and neither Zinc nor any of its employees can be held liable for any damages resulting from the use of, or inability to use the information contained within this guide. Additionally, Zinc cannot be held liable for any form of action or decision made as a result of using this guide.
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