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Why Is Recognition at Work So Important?

Why Is Recognition at Work So Important?

Many organizations do not prioritize recognition at work. When it is given, it's often experienced differently by employees -- including women and people of color. How can employers make recognition more equitable? Meisha-Ann Martin, senior director of People Analytics and Research at Workhuman, joins the podcast to discuss.

Camille Lloyd is the Director of the Gallup Center on Black Voices. Follow her at @policyresrchbuf

Dr. Ella F. Washington is the CEO of Ellavate Solutions and a Professor of Practice at Georgetown McDonough School of Business. Follow her at @EllaFWashington

Learn more about the Gallup Center on Black Voices at

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Camille Lloyd 00:11

Welcome to Cultural Competence. I'm Camille Lloyd.

Ella Washington 00:15
And I'm Dr. Ella Washington.

Camille Lloyd 00:16
So I'm excited about our conversation today around recognition. On some recent research that Gallup conducted as part of a study with WorkHuman, we found that only 19% of Black employees and 21% of Hispanic employees strongly agree that they receive a similar amount of recognition as other team members. And this is compared to about 28% of White employees, so significantly less likely among Black and Hispanic employees to strongly agree that the recognition they receive is the same amount as their team members. I'd just love to kind of hear from your take. What has been your experience with recognition throughout your career -- whether giving it or receiving recognition?

Ella Washington 01:05
Well, a few things come to mind when you share that really interesting data. First, it's that age-old saying, "You got to work twice as hard to get half as far," right, for people from communities of color, for women. And so part of me wonders, like, you know, to what extent is it that people are, you know, working hard but not being recognized? The other thing that comes to mind is the fact that when we say recognition, I wonder how much clarity there is on what it actually means and what it means for people to feel like they're being recognized. So, for example, you know, in some organizations they'll say, they'll send organizationalwide emails, and you get a personal shout-out for the person that did this great work. And you'll see all these emails come through. In other organizations, it's, you know, held on to the end of the year, when they have like awards or something like that. In other organizations, it's purely based on what your comp is for the next year or, you know, your promotion status. And so I even wonder, you know, are we even understanding recognition to be the same thing for everyone?

Camille Lloyd 02:14
I think, for me, it's, it's when I saw it, I was like, OK, I can see that, in terms of like the quantity, right? The same amount. But I think also from, from personal experience, it's, I'd also oftentimes wonder why the recognition differ, right? So it's like, what would be someone who gets a recognition that is, you would say, tangible? Like someone recognized your contribution, maybe it's throughout the year, and as a result, you got promoted or you got monetary benefits from that work. And so, you know, you often wonder what determines a great job versus, OK, I'm gonna run you some money for the excellent work and performance, right? So I always, sometimes it is kind of this mystery as to what were the distinguishing factors, right, that oftentimes went into it, in addition to the amount. So it was always this mystery.

Camille Lloyd 03:11
And, and, you know, so often times you might ask yourself the question of who's getting the credit, or who will get the credit? And it's always that mystery where you never know. And so I think it's kind of not, maybe that's a frequency issue but also kind of not really truly understanding what goes into why one person would get recognition over another for doing the same work, or in my, you know, experience, similar quality. Or, you know, one person might get something more substantial over another person. And the quality was the same. So that's always been a mystery for me.

Ella Washington 03:49
And then I think about like how equipped are managers, your everyday managers, really, to give equitable and inclusive recognition? I think it's one of those things that people assume happens as you step into these different leadership roles. But I could certainly see, you know, a manager feeling like they're giving recognition but not really having the training or the words or the specific levers to pull or understanding when they should give recognition; when they shouldn't. When should they use it as a moment for coaching? When should they use it as a moment for just pure appreciation. And so that's why I'm so excited to have Dr. Martin here with us today to illuminate all of these wonderful things about recognition and teach us how to be more equitable and inclusive with our recognition.

Ella Washington 04:36
Dr Meisha-Ann Martin is an industrial organizational psychologist and is currently senior director, people, analytics and research at WorkHuman. In that role, Meisha-Ann leads a team that focuses on proving the impact of positive work experiences for individuals and organizations. Meisha-Ann has a personal passion for diversity, equity and inclusion and loves using data and analytics to identify and remedy inclusion gaps in the employee experience. Meisha-Ann is considered a people analytics and employee experience expert, as she has led these efforts in companies like Flex, JetBlue, Raymond James Financial for over a decade and also has led the talent management function at ServiceMaster. Meisha and earned her Ph.D. in I.O. psychology from the University of South Florida. Welcome, Dr. Meisha-Ann Martin!

Meisha-Ann Martin 05:28
Thank you so much! I'm so excited to be here.

Camille Lloyd 05:32
Well, Dr. Martin, we are particularly excited about our conversation today about recognition. Because when we think about recognition, I don't think all of our minds always go to diversity, equity and inclusion. So I think for our listeners, it's going to be important to really understand, you know, that framework as to, why is recognition important? I know recently, we found that about, you know, 81% of leaders say recognition is not a major strategic priority for their organization. So I would just love to kind of just hear from you, why is recognition important for the overall experience? And maybe a little bit about how you all are approaching it at WorkHuman.

Meisha-Ann Martin 06:17
Yeah, so that's a really good question. Recognition and appreciation is really fundamental to human relationships. It's me saying to you, I see you for exactly who you are, your particular skills and capabilities. I appreciate that. I appreciate you, and here's how you make a difference in my life. So that is very different from, hey, you're just a number, and you're showing up, and you're putting a widget in the thing, and you're part of this machine. No. Appreciation changes that to, I'm part of a community where people see me, and they appreciate me. So at WorkHuman, we have technology that enables that interaction. It's especially important in today's day and age, where I can't necessarily run into you in the hallway and go, "Hey, I saw what you did in that meeting, and man, your star was shining real bright," right? Like it doesn't happen necessarily organically as much as it used to. And so we have a platform that enables that interaction.

Meisha-Ann Martin 07:26
So for example, I will send a message to you, and I will say specifically what I saw you do in that meeting. I may or may not attach a monetary component to it, so that you can redeem the points associated with that message for merchandise. And then it shows up on a social feed for everybody to see, if you allow it to, right -- if you go in the system and say you're OK with that public recognition. And so what it does is it amplifies that behavior for the community to see. People can comment on it and say, "Great job!"; they can like it. So you know, think about Facebook, right? Facebook, for some people, is not always a great experience because of the different negative things you see on Facebook. But can you imagine like a Facebook that's just all positive, good stuff and how different that would feel? This is what that is.

Ella Washington 08:17
So I'm curious how this technology works on an everyday basis. Is it that I have to have someone in mind that I want to recognize, meaning there's this underlying component that recognition has to be on my mind? Or does it give you nudges? Does it help me to provide recognition? Because a lot of people I find, you know, they think they're doing a good job recognizing their team members, but, one, they're not doing it often enough. And then, two, they're not doing it in a way that that team member actually appreciates and receives it and registers it as recognition and not something else.

Meisha-Ann Martin 08:53
Yeah. So that's a really interesting question. So we've got a lot of different clients in a lot of different industries in lots of different countries around the world. And what we find is that once this behavior starts, it spreads pretty easily. So as people get recognition and they get the good feels, they want to give that to somebody else. And there's actually, you know, research out there that supports that; when somebody makes you feel grateful, you want to go out there and you want to spread that good feeling. So we find that that groundswell happens pretty organically, and pretty soon it becomes a habit for the individual, and also embedded in the culture.

Meisha-Ann Martin 09:34
That being said, it is on our roadmap to incorporate things like nudges and integration into our products that when you are appreciating in other ways, like in Slack, you know, that it will take you directly to the platform to do that, and we already have some of that in place. So we're exploring different ways to, you know, make that a habit for individuals and to help it get embedded in the culture.

Camille Lloyd 10:02
So Dr. Martin, one of the things when it comes to recognition or what we should do in terms of showing appreciation, I feel like it's the norm, or it's one of those areas of work that everyone says, well, it's a meritocracy, right? That's where you start to get those conversations about, well, it's based on merit; it's based on performance. And I think that there's this default to think that all recognition is based off merit. But I know recent research shows that they're very different viewpoints and perspectives on what equity looks like as far as recognition. Can you talk a little bit more about what, how recognition plays into inclusion and creating an inclusive environment, when we have this somewhat, you know, misnomer that all recognition is based on merit, but, you know, we know that that's not true.

Meisha-Ann Martin 10:51
We do. And one of the things that we, I think, need to do as human beings is to separate intention from impact. And so meritocracy may be your intention, but that may not be how it's playing out. And in my experience with employee experience and with organizations, what happens so often is that people are experiencing inequities in an organization that the organization is blind to. And this is where metrics and measurement and discipline and analytics comes in. So when you have these interactions taking place in the system, it gives you the opportunity to analyze that data. And so we do that very, very often. We're able to look at frequency of recognition -- who's getting recognized more; who's not. If you look at the same role, are people's accomplishments being described differently? So is the frequency the same, but qualitatively, are they different? When people choose to add a monetary component to a recognition, do some people get less compensation from that? The answer to all of that is "Yes."

Meisha-Ann Martin 12:00
So now we're in a place where, instead of just people perceiving that things are inequitable, now we can prove it. And instead of talking about, "Is this really happening? We can say, "Yes, for sure it is. Now what do we do about it?" That's very different from situation where you're just willy-nilly handing out gift cards from a drawer and nobody is like tracking it. And it's inequitable, but the only people that know it's inequitable are the people that never get a gift card. You know what I mean? So it just kind of levels up our game and makes sure that we're providing a similarly rich experience for all different types of people in the organization.

Ella Washington 12:43
Can you make it plain for our listeners? Like what are some of those trends that you see? What are there some of those biases, maybe, that you all have been uncovering that we should know about?

Meisha-Ann Martin 12:56
Yeah. So let's start with gender. So male versus female. That's what we typically look at in organizations, because we don't have enough data as yet about nonbinary. So male versus female, what we tend to see is that when we look at the frequency of recognition, women get recognized more. They also tend to give more recognition. However, when you look at compensation received from recognition, women receive less. This is true whether you look at the total compensation or you look at the average compensation received from a single recognition event.

Meisha-Ann Martin 13:41
When we dig a little deeper, we find that qualitatively, the experience tends to be different, even when we're looking at men versus women in the very same role. The language used to describe the accomplishments are different. So, men tend to be recognized for more outcome-oriented things like, Yeah, that project is done; good job! Big, huge monetary component to this one recognition that you get. And women, we know this -- Oh, you have such a positive attitude, right? Like you're so collaborative. And you get recognized for the "how," and those tend to be more frequent, and they tend to be smaller, but it's different even when you're in the same role. This is what we found.

Meisha-Ann Martin 14:23
Looking at race, we tend to find that Whites get more recognition. They get more recognition, in terms of frequency and also in terms of money. When we look at intersectionality, like the intersection between race and gender, we find that Black men and Hispanic men are having a very different experience than Black women and Hispanic women. Black men and Hispanic men are the least likely to be giving and receiving recognition. So we have all this data that shows that giving and receiving recognition connects people to the organizational community, increases engagement, increases retention, increases thriving, right, like based on our research that we did with Gallup. However, Black and Hispanic men tend to be missing all of this goodness at a disproportionate rate, unfortunately.

Ella Washington 15:21
You know, this is really fascinating, because everything that you're sharing, I have seen in the research on performance management and feedback. And so we often do seminars on what does inclusive feedback look like? And I often reference a study that was done by Joan C. Williams and colleagues last year, in 2021, about how they looked at the qualitative reviews across a law firm and found some of those same exact trends that you're saying. Women were noted for their personality and their team attributes. Men were noted for outcomes. Men were more likely to be given feedback around being a leader. Women were more likely to be given feedback around, you know, contributing to the team. And there were also racial dynamics there as well, very much to what you described.

Ella Washington 16:11
So I'm wondering, how do we connect these two? Right. Because some people would say recognition is all about giving a pat on the back and making employees feel valued. And performance management is all about, you know, making sure that you are guiding your employees to the performance that you want to see, right? And also a mechanism for promotions and other ways to evaluate. So what do leaders need to know when we're seeing these trends in recognition, we're seeing these trends in performance? And probably in other spaces too. How do we connect those to give a full picture to leadership teams?

Meisha-Ann Martin 16:48
Yeah. So I think we need to acknowledge and recognize that these processes are all drinking from the same poisoned unconscious bias stream. Right? And so the more that we surface all these different insights around these different processes, we start to make people aware that hey, it's happening everywhere. Because again, going back to how I stay started this conversation, we need to really realize that intent and impact are not the same, right? And we need to help people understand, this is exactly what's happening. So I strongly feel like awareness is the first step and proactively connecting those dots for people and creating the motivation to do things differently.

Camille Lloyd 17:40
So Dr. Martin, but what do we do, in terms of, for organizations where most are saying that, that there really isn't kind of training for managers on how to give good recognition, much less recognition that is aware of the biases that are either conscious or unconscious? But what, what do you do? What do managers do? So we're thinking about listeners, what do organizations do in terms of some of that tangible? Because we know that that's not an area of manager development that's heavily focused and trained on how to do this do this and do this well.

Meisha-Ann Martin 18:16
So I have a couple of suggestions around that. The first one comes from a conversation I had with the head of diversity and inclusion for Wayfair, KeyAnna Schmiedl. And they did some of the similar research, you know, with their performance management processes and found some of the same language things that we talked about. And they're incorporating changes into their calibration process. So, for example, now, every time somebody brings up "confidence" as a developmental area for a woman, somebody is assigned to go, whoa, whoa, whoa -- wait, what does that mean? What exactly does that mean? And so I like that idea of challenging in the moment and making people be really explicit when some of these things that we're starting to realize are biases are coming up.

Meisha-Ann Martin 19:08
The second thing is something that we've done at WorkHuman. We've developed something that we call an inclusion adviser. This is the brainchild of our fantastic natural language processing team. They developed a taxonomy of bias and negative language. And so now when you're typing out a recognition message, if you choose to use the inclusion adviser, it will highlight a phrase that's potentially problematic, explain to you why that phrase may not come across as you intend, and it gives you the opportunity to change it. It has been working so well with our clients who have been using it. Like people are actually changing what they're writing and removing the bias. So they're improving in the moment. And anecdotally people are telling us, you know, it changes the way I write performance reviews. It changes the way I talk to people. I had no idea. There's something so powerful that happens when the light bulbs go off for people, and this learning translates across all the different processes, HR processes, and all the different ways they're interacting with employees.

Ella Washington 20:20
So, you know, we have a lot of listeners that may be from smaller companies. Right? And so they're like, oh, this is cool technology. I wish my company could do this. And I love that the space of HR and workplace analytics and where we're going, right? And all the things that are possible -- and, though, there are financial limitations oftentimes with these companies, right, and especially as we're thinking about the forthcoming economy and things like that. So how does a company that is really committed and wants to do these things, but maybe they're not at the space where they can hire WorkHuman and get all the bells and whistles. How do they still continue on their DEI journey, even if they're not at a place where they can get all of the wonderful things that you all have to offer?

Meisha-Ann Martin 21:02
Yeah. So that's a really good question. One of the best tools I've come across for this is a gender decoder online for job descriptions. So you literally cut and paste your job description into this free tool, and it's actually based on academic research, and it will flag for you the words that are gender-biased -- that are more attractive to males than to females and vice versa. And I think that that is a really great exercise, but also it educates you. Right? So I think part one is educating yourself and your company on the things that might be biased. There's all this information out there, right? Like things like confident, positive attitude. And just in general, when you're giving any type of feedback that is squishy, I am a big fan of, of challenging things like that, especially when they are, you know, just kind of a bit nebulous, like what exactly does that mean? Where does that come from? Would you say that if it was a man? Like get this culture where people are comfortable challenging things like that, so that you can all learn together.

Meisha-Ann Martin 22:18
I also think that there is power in the pause. Sometimes we just move so fast. When you're writing a performance review, take a minute. What does this mean? How will this land? Is there any language in here that may not come across as I intend? That relationship between an individual and their leader is so important that, you know, these types of communications, it warrants that pause and that interrogative thinking, right? Like we just need to be a lot more thoughtful about how we treat each other as human beings.

Ella Washington 22:57
I think one interesting thing about that is that, you know, we love, again, the data analytics but, you know, we can also lean on our peers, right? And, you know, leaders oftentimes are busy running from one thing to the next, and they're like, I don't have time to ask anybody else for their opinion or perspective. But what if, what if you and I as peers traded our performance evaluations before we sent them -- maybe blind them so we don't, you know, share any information we shouldn't. But that could help us, you know, to catch some of these phrases. And I love that "power in the pause," because sometimes it's a pause just collecting yourself, and other times it's a pause to ask for someone else's perspective. And those things are not free because they do take time, but they don't have a cost implication; it's something we can do -- and by the way, it helps build competence in our leadership community around these things as well.

Meisha-Ann Martin 23:48
I absolutely love that. It's not really fashionable to say this anymore, but I love a good calibration session for that purpose, right? Like ask your community to say, OK, why did you rate that person that way? What went into that? When you know you have to defend what you're saying to a group of people, you're gonna be a lot more careful. Also, it invites them to kind of check you. It's brilliant. I love it. I know it takes a lot of time, but I love it for that reason.

Camille Lloyd 24:20
So Dr. Martin, we know that Black workers say they don't receive the same recognition as their peers, and it's all about people's experience. What do you think is accounting for this difference in perspectives or perception on the types of recognition that workers are receiving, why we see this difference, in terms of how Black workers are kind of rating their experiences with recognition versus other groups of workers? What do you think is accounting for some of that difference in perception?

Meisha-Ann Martin 24:51
I think they have that perception because it's true, and they know. So it's so interesting to me because, you know, sometimes people see this data and they go, well, you know, perception is not reality, and maybe they just feel that way. In my experience, I realize that so many people are interested in protecting their view of the world more than they are in finding out what's actually true. And so what we've collected in this research with Gallup is a perception. But the data we've collected with WorkHuman data, right, like in actual client organizations, it lends credence to this perception, perceiving it because it's true. They are actually truly getting less recognition from their peers, and they feel it. So now let's extrapolate that to other things that happens in organizations. When people tell you they perceive something is not equitable, maybe you start with that as a real working hypothesis, because it probably isn't. So going back to that gift card in the drawer, who knows that it's not equitable? The person who never receives the gift card.

Ella Washington 26:08
Now how much of recognition is individual-based or cultural based? So for example, it could be that in this organization, we give recognition in this particular way. But we know from Gallup research that, you know, everyone doesn't receive recognition in the same way. What feels like recognition as, you know, a public shout-out to one person that makes them feel really good, feels like a callout and makes me want to shrink and hide for another person that feels like they're being put on blast, and they didn't ask to be, right. And so I think something tangible like gift cards, for example, but, I mean that even goes into like love languages, right? Everybody might not feel like a $50 gift card is really something that they're feeling recognized for their work. So how do you become equitable and inclusive but also recognize those differences in how people experience recognition?

Meisha-Ann Martin 27:01
Yeah, I love that question. So there are aspects of the experience that are universally impactful. Every human being likes to be appreciated, but the personalization comes in the how. And again, this is where technology can really help us. So in our platform, for example, you can go in and you can say, I never want my stuff to show up on a social feed. I also think that a shout-out on a social feed is very different than a shout out in an all-hands where everybody turns around and, like, looks at you right? Like it lands differently. But you still you, still have that choice whether to keep, you know, all of your messages private or to let some of them go on the social feed.

Meisha-Ann Martin 27:53
The other thing, in terms of monetary recognition, at WorkHuman, we use a point system, and you can redeem it for whatever you want. And so that means I'm not necessarily giving you a gift card. You can choose to redeem it for a gift card. You can also choose to redeem it for merchandise. You could spend as you get, or you could save it up for something really big, like a stove or a really fancy coffee machine that you wouldn't have bought otherwise; that's what I did. And every morning I'm like, Thank you, WorkHuman! as I drink my espresso. But the beauty of things like that is I think that it maintains that impact of appreciation while taking some of the challenging pieces off of the leader. If I have 10 direct reports, I no longer have to keep in my head, OK, so who doesn't like to have me do this? And who likes the gift card? And who likes the that? And, you know, so you get all the benefits of appreciation, but it's less hard for you to mess that up, right? Or it's more hard for you to mess it up less hard.

Camille Lloyd 29:02
In that vein about talking about messing it up, what does good recognition look like?

Meisha-Ann Martin 29:07
Yeah, so good recognition is authentic, first of all; it is specific to that person and who they are and what they did. So the person feels like, oh this is specifically for me! You see me! Oh my gosh, wow, I am specifically and uniquely appreciated. It's also very close to the event that's being recognized, because the other piece that we haven't talked about is recognition as a coaching tool, right? So something that you want repeated if you positively reinforce it, which is really what recognition is, it increases the probability that that behavior will actually be repeated. And so you want the appreciation to happen as close to the event as possible. You don't want somebody doing something in January and you wait all the way till April to be like, "Yeah, good job on that!" And the person's like OK, so what did I do again? And by the way, I could have been doing that same thing repeatedly between January and the time when you finally recognized me had I known.

Ella Washington 30:23
How do we make sure that even the behaviors that are getting recognized aren't skewing towards one personality type? Kind of like we see in the gender dynamics, but also, you know, what we hear a lot is, like, introverts versus extroverts, right? And the extroverts are the loudest ones in the room; they get recognized. But the introverts feel like they're not seen, they're not valued, even though they could be doing the same work. Now some roles, of course, we know, do call for more extroverted action, like if you're in client services, right, and you have to speak in public. But there are so many other roles that don't call for those specific things where we constantly see those with extroverted personalities getting recognized and rewarded, and the introverts kind of feel left out.

Meisha-Ann Martin 31:07
This is where the fun strategy comes in, in my opinion. So a lot of our best clients, what they do is they choose categories of recognition that align to their values. So they've predecided that these are the behaviors that we want for this culture and for this organization. So they specifically seek to recognize and appreciate behaviors in alignment with the organizational values. We've got other clients doing it to promote safety behaviors. So when people speak up about safety issues, they make a really big deal about it, because they want other people to speak up about safety issues. And we see really cool and positive linkages between that practice and between actual safety. And we see safety incidents go down as a result. So essentially, you know, to get away from this bias of, you know, recognizing personality or introvert versus extrovert, you are very intentionally strategic about those behaviors that you're recognizing.

Ella Washington 32:15
So the question that we ask all of our guests before they leave us is, you know, what are we working towards? You know, diversity, equity and inclusion work is difficult, is challenging. And sometimes it can feel like you're rolling the boulder up the hill, right? But what is it that we're working towards? Like what would be a workplace utopia, in terms of recognition, from your perspective?

Meisha-Ann Martin 32:37
I think work, work, a workplace utopia starts with who is attracted to your organization and how they feel comfortable showing up. So for me, utopia is when anybody of any nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, they feel comfortable coming to your workplace exactly who they are. They don't feel like they have to code shift. They don't feel like they have to be different. They don't feel like they have to withhold or keep their personal lives separate from their professional lives. They feel like they can bring their whole and unique selves and capabilities to your organization and be uniquely appreciated for that.

Meisha-Ann Martin 33:24
When we look at surveys, there's no difference in response rates or in actual responses. We're digging like organizational detectives and trying to see where could the experience be different for different people? And we're finding nothing. It sounds weird to say, like as a people analytics person, but I am so excited for the day when we do all these splits between different types of people looking for differences and experience and we find absolutely nothing. That's Nirvana for me.

Camille Lloyd 33:57
Absolutely. Well, Dr. Martin, thank you so much for your time, coming and talking with us. But we know that our listeners are always interested in understanding more and learning more. So where can they find more information about your work? But also more strategies and tips as they try to create that good recognition that you describe?

Meisha-Ann Martin 34:17
Absolutely. So they can go to and go under the Resources section. We are always doing research on a number of things that we think are topical and important for the current time. Things like psychological safety, different ways of working -- in addition to, of course, appreciation and recognition. And then, individuals can always also find me on LinkedIn. So Meisha-Ann Martin on LinkedIn. Find me, connect. I usually have quite a lot to say.

Camille Lloyd 34:47
Well, thank you so much for joining us in Cultural Competence. We appreciate and value the insights that you shared with us today. Thank you so much.

Meisha-Ann Martin 34:57
Thank you so much for having me.

Camille Lloyd 35:01
That's our podcast. To subscribe to Cultural Competence from any podcast app, just search "Cultural Competence." You can learn more about the Gallup Center on Black Voices by visiting Cultural Competence is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Camille Lloyd.

Ella Washington 35:18
And I'm Dr. Ella Washington.

Camille Lloyd 35:20
Thanks for tuning in to Cultural Competence. A diversity and inclusion podcast.

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