A reader has gotten no feedback at work and wonders what will happen at a performance review, in the July 21, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

feedbackI’ve been at my current job about ten months. My first review will be coming up but no one has brought up anything about it. Other employees tell me it’s rote. The boss gives you feedback after filling out some forms, you sign them and then HR meets with you. I think my boss is happy with me. She’s had no complaints that I know about and I’m basically happy here except I’d like more interesting work. Should I be worried about my upcoming review?

Nick’s Reply

I worry about people who wait for review time to ask for feedback from the boss. Of course, your boss should be talking with you regularly about your work and your performance. She should be expressing any concerns and letting you know what you’re doing right. Unfortunately, formal performance reviews have become so bureaucratic and rote that many managers avoid them and employees are glad when the meeting is delayed.

Feedback

Don’t  wait for your boss to tell you how you’re doing. Without frequent feedback it’s very difficult to adjust your work behavior so you’ll perform well. In fact, feedback is so fundamental a control mechanism throughout our lives that I wonder how people could miss its significance in their careers.

Almost every life science (biology, psychology, medicine) involves the study of feedback. I remember this question on a biology exam in college: Why do animals have their brains at the front of their bodies rather than on the back end or in the middle? The answer is that, as the processor of sensory input, the brain is near the eyes, ears, nose and tongue. An animal’s sensory apparatus is positioned at the part of the body that goes first when the animal moves.

Why is that important? Because survival depends enormously on the ability to process input quickly. When an animal moves forward, instant feedback about the results of that action is crucial to the animal’s survival. The human brain is on top of the body because that’s where the most important sensory input arrives: a few feet off the ground. (Or so we’re told.)

Imagine what would happen to a horse galloping towards the edge of a cliff. If its brain and sensory apparatus came last, the animal would likely go over the cliff before it could process the visual input that provides feedback about danger and motion.

Get feedback early and often

This is why, when you’re doing your job, it helps to gather feedback early and often – to help you avoid going over a cliff. There’s very little difference between that horse and the employee who fails to get regular feedback and is fired for not doing the work in the way expected.

Make your case

Feedback is also a great tool to help you make more money: How should I ask for an overdue raise?

Studies have shown that people who ask for feedback tend to do a job the way the boss wants it done, and they tend to get promoted. Even more interesting is that younger workers seem to ask for feedback more than older workers. (They get promoted more often, too.)

Asking your boss, “How am I doing?” doesn’t imply that you lack confidence. It shows that you’re trying to do the job the way the boss wants it done. While you may have great suggestions about how to do the work better, what matters most is that you talk to your boss and listen to what the boss has to say. The feedback you receive should direct your behavior on the job.

Create a feedback loop

If there’s a problem, a feedback loop can help you identify it early and give you (and your boss) time and a chance to adjust your behavior, or to make other necessary choices before the matter is beyond your control.

Creating a regular feedback loop is not hard. Keep it informal. One or more of these tips should get you started on a path that avoids surprises at review time.

  • When your boss gives you a new assignment, map out your approach, show it to your boss, and ask for comments and suggestions.
  • When you complete all or part of a project, show the results to your boss and ask for feedback on how you did it.
  • When you encounter problems or challenges on a project, outline the issues to your boss, suggest how you’ll deal with them, and request guidance.
  • A month before your review meeting, make a brief, informal list of your accomplishments during the year. Discuss it with your boss and ask, “Can you give me an idea of what I’ll be working on next year?” Be ready to express a short wish list of your own.
  • Stick your head in your boss’s doorway (or e-mail box) and casually ask, “So, how’s our company doing?” or “How’s our team doing on delivering what management expects of us?” This opens a discussion and a channel for important dialogue on how you fit into the business.

Tune these suggestions to suit your situation, your boss, and your style. The idea is to make your work an ongoing discussion without appearing to lack confidence.

Don’t wait for a performance review

To get a measure of control over your forthcoming performance review, engage in regular discussion about your work and how you do it. By talking about it you’re helping your boss verbalize and express judgments about you. Another fun fact from the world of psychology is that people tend to remember opinions they have expressed out loud. Help your boss say it to remember it and believe it!

Obviously, you want to have discussions that put you and your performance in a good light! When your formal performance review arrives, both you and your boss will be on the same page. No surprises. No worries.

While factors beyond your control can affect your job (the economy, the pandemic, changes in management), don’t let your relationship with your boss depend on an annual review. Don’t wait until review time for your boss to tell you how you’re doing. Make it an ongoing conversation about your work.

(The studies referred to above are described more fully in From the Outside in: Seven Strategies for Success When You’re Not a Member of the Dominant Group in Your Workplace, iUniverse, 2005, by Renee Blank, Sandra Slipp and Vincent Ford.)

Do you ever ask your boss about your performance at work? How often? Has a performance review ever turned into a nightmare? How do you know where you stand?

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31 Comments
  1. Great column about feedback. I’ll add one more suggestion – whenever the writer does a presentation or gives a talk, as the boss how it went. The best feedback I ever got was after I had messed something up in a talk. It really sank in.
    If bosses are reading this, don’t just give corrections but give positive feedback also. And not just to make the negative feedback easier to take. “You did a great job there – and here is why” builds loyalty.

    About the list of accomplishments before the review – you nailed it. I was on a committee trying to improve performance reviews. We did focus groups, and the biggest complaint we got was when employees thought their managers didn’t know what they were doing, and thus didn’t bring it to the next level meeting. We put in a requirement for a before review accomplishment document and meeting which got signed off by boss and employee. It made a huge difference.
    The writer can’t establish that rule, but they can make sure their boss does it.

  2. “You did a great job there – and here is why” builds loyalty.

    Advice of the century.

  3. I have been working remotely for 12 years, and have seen a co-worker once in the last 8 years. One of the things that we lost was the ability to pop into another’s office to ask how things are going.

    It is important to manage my boss. We check-in with each other when an announcement or potential issue is on the horizon.

    I scheduled 30-minute, monthly, semi-formal check-in meetings with my manager. I scheduled repeating meetings over the next 5 years. The meeting has no formal agenda. I get to hear what is on their mind. I reivew some potential issues with my projects. There are no surprises at review time because I knew what they were looking for during the year.

    • @Jim: You’re an interesting case. Not just because you’re a remote worker, but because of how long you’ve been managing it. This is proof that distance need not hamper good work habits and “managing upwards.” Thanks for telling your short story — this is a huge lesson for employees AND managers.

  4. In my last job, I had a (usually) weekly check-in meeting with my supervisor. This was a job that had a lot of individual projects starting and finishing. It was meant to keep him advised of progress and for him to provide guidance and inform me of new projects. Probably some jobs don’t lend themselves to this.

  5. This is a timely article. One of the things you lose by running virtual meetings is the ability to watch people react to a presentation, or “read the room.” It’s also harder to follow up at the end of the meeting because after they leave they’re harder to track down. I’m going to experiment with a survey tool that I can send to participants to get feedback after the presentation or meeting. I don’t know what I’ll get back but it will be an interesting experiment.

    • @Carl T: Good idea. One way to do this is to give them a heads-up when you do a presentation, in person or virtually — though I think it’s more important in the latter case — is to put a coda on your presentation.

      “Thanks for your attention. I’d like to follow up with members of this audience in a week or two, to find out how effective my presentation really was. With your permission, I’d like to e-mail you to ask whether and how what I talked about today has been useful to you in your work.”

      This “push” approach sorta/kinda gives you permission because you’ve “warned” them to expect contact from you. I’d love to know what you learn from the survey.

    • Here’s something to try. I was on a small committee which wasn’t going anywhere once. Someone had the idea of adding a short feedback agenda item at the end of the meeting where every participant said what worked and didn’t work. We found that we agreed on what didn’t work, and in no time we were more effective and more positive.
      You can do that during online meetings also.

  6. I recommend keeping a weekly work journal. Contemporaneous written records will always weigh more than faulty memories. Moreover, I have seen too many firms manage their appraisals to justify raises. If at the end of the year you receive a mediocre raise but have written records of your accomplishments, you can negotiate for something else, like extra vacation time. For people on my team, I prepare mock reviews every quarter. There aren’t any surprises and it allows them to correct problems before formal reviews.

    • @Jonathan: You raise a key point. “There aren’t any surprises.” There should never be surprises. Both managers and employees should at all times have a pretty good idea where an employee or a project stands.

      Your other point is just as important. “It allows them to correct problems…” Performance reviews have become so useless in some places because no one stops to consider their purpose: To improve performance! Not to justify punishment!

      For anyone that doesn’t really understand “feedback loops,” please read the Wired article I linked to in my column above. Feedback serves as a “governor” of behavior when used effectively. It’s a critical concept in so many areas of our lives.

    • One of the things with the annual performance reviews is in the two or three weeks leading up, those who score a win do well, those who make a mistake, not so much.

      This is regardless of what else was (or was not) accomplished the rest of the year.

    • That’s a great idea. If you are listing your accomplishments in November, you likely have forgotten stuff you did in February. I had a text file where I made notes of everything I did which I used for this. It was mostly to document problems I found and solved so that when I saw them again six months later I could remember what the heck I did to fix them. But it came in handy at review time also.
      This also helps with the problem @Greg mentioned.

      • @Scott: That text file is also useful when you need to update your resume, and to prepare for a job interview. In fact, this is why I advise people to treat a job interview like a performance review. Then ask the interviewer to rate you: “If this were a performance review, would you promote me, fire me, give me a raise, assign me a new project, or give me a warning and some guidance?” It blows most interviewers away and changes the entire job interview because now you’re behaving like an employee conferring with their boss.

        • What a great idea! Besides making you stand out, it gets cognitive dissonance working for you. Since the interviewer is likely to be too chicken to be negative (thus the lack of feedback) they will say something positive – and that locks a positive view of you in their mind.

          Of course the feedback might be negative – but better to find that out sooner rather than later.

  7. The best types of feedback is the feedback that occurs organically.

  8. Nick – All good advice that I have used over the decades. But the assumption is that all good things happen, doesn’t quite make the cut.
    Jim’s statement about managing the boss is absolutely correct
    I have had some massive failures, best intentions, and instead of quietly just fixing it that would violate trust. I would formulate responses, typically 3. Then I would walk to my bosses office and tell him that my efforts on the project went South, and I have 3 recovery plans I would like to talk about for 15 minutes, asking for a time to come back.
    These were not Power Point, most of the time just typed. All within hours of the failure. Never in all my years, have I had a problem doing that.
    When I had staff who screwed up, they knew I would support them if they were honest and didn’t surprise me.
    Discussions with my bosses have been about success for the company, and unless your boss is a real moron (like I have had) even a screw up can be a positive.
    Think of it this way

    If the company had to downsize, would they cut you loose because you were not flexible enough to roll with it and find solutions. Or are you the type who expects the boss to solve your problems.

    Same with the raise / promotion. We all screw up because we are all human. But when you can count on someone to cover your back, that person is golden in my book.

    • @Joseph Fabian: When things go south is the indeed the time to fess up and talk to your boss. Thanks for emphasizing this.

  9. All of this is excellent advice, but it presumes that bosses and HR are giving job performance reviews. At my last couple of jobs, neither I nor any of my colleagues received reviews, despite begging for them. Trying go around the boss was the fastest way to paint a bulls-eye on your back.

    I remember asking a boss, and when I told him that I hadn’t had a job performance review since so and so retired nearly 9 years ago, he started sucking air, looked for an escape, and when I told him I would fill out the paperwork and we could met at his convenience, he grumbled “no one else gets reviews, so why should you?”. And that was that.

    Nor was it just my school/dept.: other employees in other depts. (I worked for a large university) told me that they’d been there decades and despite begging, never received job performance reviews. One told me to be glad, because it means that you’re doing well and they’re happy with you (no news is good news, I suppose). But the downside was that raises finally came through (due to politics–it took electing a new governor, who promptly honored our contracts, to get them after 4 years of foot-dragging by the previous governor), those who received excellent reviews got the raises first, followed by those who received satisfactory reviews, then by those who received poor reviews, and last of all where the large group of us who received no reviews.

    At that job, I had 5 bosses–3 in the first 18 months. The first 3 were reasonable, the last 2 made the fictional character Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada) look like Mother Theresa.

    At the job after that, only professional staff received job performance reviews, and despite asking my boss, the answer was NO. I did as suggested, asking for feedback after completing projects, etc., and received shrugs. The others like me later told me that they’d never received reviews either, and not to hold my breath.

    So not only did you not hear when you didn’t do something the way someone else expected, if you asked, you were told it was perfectly fine, and only months later when you heard someone else grumbling were you perhaps clued in that there had been a problem. I asked/begged “I’ll tell you if/when I mess up, and please tell me if I didn’t do something correctly. I’d rather hear it from you than hear it third or fourth hand from someone else”. This fell on deaf ears.

    And no, HR never got after managers/bosses who failed to do employees’ annual job performance reviews.

    • @Marybeth: That’s when it’s all the more important to have those regular talks with the boss! Just don’t let them know you’re sneaking in an on-the-fly review!

      • @Nick: Yes, it is, although for the reviews to be valid, paperwork had to be completed and the boss had to sign it. Otherwise, no go. I suppose I should have tried to pull a Radar O’Riley (MASH character) when he used to have Col. Blake sign things, and while both of those bosses didn’t have a clue about my average day (so long as the work got done, they didn’t care and didn’t want to know anything), neither one of them would have blindly signed anything.

        I remember one instance when my boss marched into my office one morning, telling me that she had “things for me to do today”. I said okay, let me know what you need. She told me that I was lazy, and had better get going on the fall semester scheduling and faculty. My jaw hit the floor. I had done the scheduling for the upcoming fall semester, plus all of the faculty paperwork for payroll more than 2 months ago, and submitted it to Cont. Ed. I pulled up the correspondence with my boss showing her okay of the courses and faculty, plus the receipt I required Cont. Ed. to sign when I submitted the paperwork to them. Everything had been submitted 10 weeks earlier…..and when I asked her if she had something else, she snapped at me, grumbling, and then headed over to her Nursing staff and started yelling and screaming at them for not getting the upcoming semester’s courses and faculty paperwork done and submitted.
        She never said “oh, great job, marybeth” or even “oh, I forgot you did this back in January. Thanks for being on top of it.” It took weeks to get everything approved, signed off, submitted, and I didn’t need anyone to remind me of deadlines. It would have been nice if I had been able to have even a brief conversation with her re how time-consuming these tasks were, but she wasn’t the kind of boss who wanted to know or even cared. She didn’t treat any of us (staff in either school, and she was nasty to faculty too) like human beings. We were merely blobs that she threw work at, didn’t get our names right, didn’t know who did what, much less what it took to make the programs run smoothly. So we had discussions among ourselves re how to make our jobs easier, and learned to play games so we wouldn’t wind up with work that wasn’t ours, tasks made harder, etc. It was survival mode.

        When I worked in insurance, I had a good boss. My job was to make her look good, and she said her job was to help me to my job. She made sure I had the tools and support I needed. It was a symbiotic relationship, as boss-employee relationships should be. With her, if something wasn’t working, or I needed something, I didn’t hesitate to go to her because I knew that she would help. With the boss at the university, she tied people’s hands behind their backs and made it as difficult as possible to do their jobs, and then didn’t want to hear about any “challenges” when it came to performance. Why? I still can’t figure it out to this day. A better boss would get more out of people.

        • @Marybeth: I find that nasty, angry, rude managers all suffer from one malady — insecurity. Terrible insecurity.

  10. “The One Minute Manager”

  11. A great topic. Addressing a golden rule of management, that seldom is followed…on-going feedback & the loathed periodic regimented performance appraisal.

    I’m a Marine, an old one, but it’s still in my DNA. Nick’s wording on feedback made me smile. I mention it because in Boot Camp recruits are blessed with not one, but 3 bosses (aka Drill Instructors…DIs for short) who “talk” AT you regularly (non stop) about your performance. No waiting. They generously share any concerns they have and let you know what you’re doing right, which is nothing. And will clearly let you know “how you are doing”. And you don’t even have to ask. Any Marines reading this will most likely recall similar feedback.

    The point is..that’s the last place I got timely feedback.

    As to feedback in my long career..I’ve had all sorts of scenarios no feedback, platitudes, the rote form filling, late, obviously uninformed and not infrequently ended up by writing my own.

    There have been irresponsible bosses, but for the most part lack of feedback usually was a combination of time flying when having fun, insane workloads on both our parts, and cases where admin work e.g. written appraisals was a boss’s 2nd favorite thing..# 1 being hung by the thumbs over boiling oil. So you and your boss evolve into a habit..or unwritten understanding…management by exception..you’re doing OK til you’re not, in which case you’ll get some feedback. No feedback, no problem…Most likely the boss is not getting any either except when there’s a problem. And just about as long as I was a manager, HR preached the mantra…feedback, appraisals etc is best done ongoing..not once a year.

    No feedback is as old as business. So before you pound HR into dust..keep in mind as to why there is such a thing as scheduled appraisals…because left to their own devices..managers won’t provide any feedback, and worse..sometimes deserved promotions, raises etc…So you invent an intrusion to MAKE a manager at least attempt some decent feedback. So love em or hate em..an employee can leverage appraisals for their benefit. 1st by doing as suggested..keep a journal, prepare for the appraisal, lay out feedback you want and questions you’d like answered. If so, at least one of you will be on top of getting feedback.

    Here’s 3 questions you can incorporate..not necessarily in this order. 1. What do you want me to stop doing? What do you want me to keep doing? What do you want me to try doing. or similar statements..1. what I think I should stop doing..etc. They usually motivate a discussion.

    The discussion herein has focused on boss/you contact & feedback. Of course when you’re a newbie that is critical as is the relationship, and especially if you’re just starting your career. But beware of a boss who pitches “you only have to please me”. BS. There’s a lot of other people who can effect your career and from whom you should get feedback. Technically your boss should be gathering this and passing it along, but I can tell you from experience..not only many don’t..but I’ve seen cases where bosses withheld it. For example…your bosses boss is really important. peers perceptions of your are important..SMEs are important, peer’s bosses likewise…customers, clients (internal & external) are important. When opportune, that question “how am I doing” is useful directed at them. I’ve seen, and had to deal with, situations where as far as your boss was concerned you were golden..you pleased him…but in the eyes of others a person was screwed up & oblivious that they had poor street cred. Bosses have egos..so a good mix of tact, diplomacy and timing won’t hurt when talking with his/her peers. But..do not depend only on the boss as a source of useful info. Keep your eyes and ears open and be aware of clues or direct info from others. This is one reason why this site has oft times stressed the importance of networking…networking isn’t just for job hunting…it’s also important for career growth. And when you work inside an organization…you’re living in a giant network. Plug into it.
    And as you grow, don’t forget to help others the same way. It won’t kill you to give someone a pat on the back or let them know ill winds are blowing.

    I was a boss. I’d like to tell you I was the role model for feedback. I was human. I could have done better. But I learned and did OK. I’ve always kept a journal. I met with people working for me. I liked to manage by walking around & as such avoiding making people find me and wrestle me to the ground to get the information they needed. I mostly lived in the world of the “annual appraisal” And I prided myself that I could put an appraisal together because I knew what people were doing (via walking around and my noes) …and I gave appraisals a high priority on my time so they weren’t platitudes and forms. People deserve an appraisal with some work put into it. My approach was to draft it, give the draft to them informally for their review..a chance to correct me, add to it etc. Then we’d talk, come to terms on what the “official” appraisal would look like, keeping in mind that this document would be in their record, read by someone down the line. They’d live with it forever, I may not. The discussion was the feedback, not the written record.

  12. I work for a small oil company with only 12 people. When I started, we had a CEO, a COO and a chief geologist. The CEO retired and the two other moved up. The second CEO retired, and the chief geologist was left with being both CEO and COO as well. Needless to say, he does not have too much spare time. He is good at delegating, because he has to.

    That is why we foot soldiers give him short feedback all the time on projects. How things go, ups and downs. If something must be fixed, it gets fixed now, rather than after some formal meeting. We know that he isn’t clairvoyant or a mind reader, and do not expect him to be, so it is our duty to the company to keep him informed on how things are.

    We do have an annual performance talk, but it is just as much a business strategy discussion as a formal appraisal.

    In contrast, in a former job, my nearest boss was a sometimes moody micro manager, where bad news were often not welcome. She did not shoot the messenger, but she shot down the message. I left after two years. Only to wade into a job where the whole management was incompetent and did not listen to the repeated messages from the foot soldiers. When the company hit the ice berg, I jumped before we sank, to my current job.

    Bottom line: I do not want top-down feedback or formal appraisals. I want a mutual discussion between professionals on how things go, and how we can solve issues.

  13. The question begs, what if you ask for genuine feedback, especially during the 90 day probationary period, told you are doing a satisfactory job, maybe given a couple points to work on, or maybe you are just given vague and ambiguous feedback? Then later you are called in, gut punched and blind sided, and told you are being “let go” because “you are not working out”? Or you are beat up, and placed on a PIP, then kicked to the curb shortly later? Other than being unethical or bold faced liars, and with the protection of at-will employment being the law of the land, there are employers who pull this. Been there, done that, and I know several others who have as well.

  14. Thank you, Antonio, for describing a few experiences I’ve had as well regarding “feedback.” I put this in quotes because I’ve come to the realization that no one else’s feedback is relevant to me, and I can tell if there is a good “vibe” from a boss or not, and I am brutally honest with myself regarding my performance. I’ve seen too many insecure, scared sh*tless, anxious, enraged managers (90% women) who threw me under the bus instead of realizing the protocol/processes/systems that I used were the cause for things to go haywire. At least twice that I can recall I’ve been victimized by this mentality and as unfair as it was/is, I look back and think, “thank God, I’m not that way. Thank God I come from a healthy mindset of being kind, fair, balanced, and protective of others at the end of the day.”

    In my experience, too many bosses are not good mentors, have no sense of providing any helpful, resourceful, and sensitive feedback on any given day — which frankly, should be given organically as it happens (“atta-boy!!”). “Negative” feedback doesn’t necessarily need to be negative; rather, let’s just call it a review of the systems in place, see where we can make changes to avoid the issue or change the behavior, and CORRECT it. No need to finger point or trash someone. Many times, I didn’t have all the training and information I needed to perform without making mistakes. . . and where was the manager?? In his/her office with the door closed, the only interaction was to provide criticism and/or bark new orders. Also, EXPECTATIONS were not clearly defined.

    IMHO, most performance reviews are incomplete because few bosses truly know all of your accomplishments and problems that were avoided because “nothing happened.” Therefore, performance reviews are meaningless and offer little in terms of professional growth. Most managers only see your mistakes and not your triumphs, this is most especially true in bedside nursing. The ultimate issue with all of these performance review scenarios is that they affect your yearly pay increase.

    All in all, I don’t seek feedback but collaborate with other colleagues with whom I can compare notes and gain perspective on my own performance.

    To thineself be true.

    • A Face in the Crowd, absolutely! Glad there are a few others on here who have gone through hard knocks in the real world.
      I’ve always deeply loathed the battle cry of toxic employers “people don’t get fired, they fire themselves”! Yeah, right.
      A former coworker of mine, and later customer, was let go in April of this year due to Covid19. In reality, he’d been on the job 18 months, and the employer wanted to eliminate older higher paid workers (he’s 64). Advertised his job later on Indeed. Has years of operations management experience.
      I threw his name into the hat for a soon to be open operations management position at my workplace. 3 interviews. Offered him the job recently at a low-ball wage (28% less than his previous job). Our young president asked him if he thought he can handle the job, lectured him about treating employees with respect, and told him he was doing him a favor by hiring him. Ouch! Despite the disrespect, my former coworker accepted the position. I hope I’m not leading him up to the hangman’s pole.

  15. Back to the main topic. Offer letters.
    1. yes you want it in writing. any important verbal meeting/agreement needs validation in writing. You’d be surprised at responses you get. when you send a note to someone(s) you met with stating this is what I took away, what we agreed to. An offer letter is the same thing.
    2. Mainly even in the best of intentions..things happen after you’ve been given a verbal offer and when you think you’re starting.
    3. Anyone who balks at putting it in writing is giving you the best information you need to make a decision..disengage. balk means professed insult to integrity, macho pressure tactics. sign now or lose the offer and on and on.
    4. The 1st person to stress that you need a written offer, is the offerer be it hiring manager or trusty HR sidekick. . including telling you not to knee jerk a resignation, break leases etc. Because of point 2 above. They know that.
    5. ditto on any questions before you sign. including negotiations. You aren’t sinning to seek clarity or nailing down omitted parts of the deal you thought were included.
    They know this. If they don’t you should be doubly cautious. You can’t afford to deal with amateurs

    One has to keep the whole purpose of offers in mind to bring aboard skillful productive help. Which is maximized by clear, timely offers and smooth on boarding. No savvy manager wants to disrupt this by a sloppy beginning. 1st impressions often are lasting.

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