Overcoming Prejudice Against ‘Foreign’ Chauffeurs

LCT Staff
Posted on August 1, 2005

It is an awkward discussion in public places. Code words, euphemisms and confusion are the norm. The problem is not simple. Some corporate transportation customers do not want to do business with foreign-born operators and they do not with to be driven by chauffeurs who speak English as a second language. They are uncomfortable with perceived language or cultural barriers. And some limousine companies are afraid that foreign-born chauffeurs, especially in major cities, are too closely associated with taxi and black car companies. In the politically correct new millennium, corporate travel managers would never come right out and say it, but their feelings can be obvious.

The head dispatcher at a large East Coast limousine service would not be quoted by name, but admitted, “We have certain accounts that I have been told I must send only American-born chauffeurs to. They will never put it in writing and neither will the owners of our company. But if I send out one of our best chauffeurs, who happens to be from the Middle East, to the wrong corporate client, my butt is in a ringer. It is a problem because we are always short of drivers and I can’t always keep track of who is available.”

This dispatcher, who has been involved in the limousine industry for more than 15 years, says the problem has become more acute in recent years. “With unemployment below five percent, we are chronically short of driving staff. The number of American-born applicants for driving positions is very small. We get many more foreign-born chauffeur candidates, and they seem ready and willing to work longer hours. In this business, you need chauffeurs who are hungry to make money. We hire them, but unfortunately we have to be careful on exactly which trips we can send these drivers.”

The Plight of Foreign-Born Operators Mohammed Bhatti, a native of Pakistan, is the owner of Limousine Corp. of Chicago. Bhatti arrived in the United States in 1978. He learned English as a young man while serving in the Air Force. His speech is accented but clear. Limousine Corp.’s current fleet numbers nine vehicles, and his chauffeurs include three for whom English is a second language.

“I understand prejudice and I have encountered it while in business,” Bhatti says. “Whether it is against a black face, a brown face or the accent I speak with, I have seen it. I have seen it in the faces of the people I have visited on sales calls. As a business owner, the only way I fight this is by asking people for an opportunity to show them what my company can do. I feel that because of my background, I have to deliver better service than my competitors who are American-born. I can’t change the way I speak or the way I look. If a door is slammed in my face because I am from Pakistan, then I just have to move on.” Bhatti’s chauffeurs sometimes are similarly affected. “I have three chauffeurs who speak Spanish as their primary language,” he explains. “I have trained these men personally and I promise our customers that they have no problem with English. The key is that our clients trust us. They know we are going to send a well-trained chauffeur on every trip. They know that if I am giving the keys to my vehicle to a chauffeur, he is quite capable of speaking English and of doing the job.”

Emin Kahyaoglu is the Turkish-born president of Kismet Limousine of Teaneck, N.J. Operating out a gleaming corporate hotel/office complex, Kismet’s 28 vehicles and 40-plus chauffeurs serve the corporate market in the New York metropolitan area.

The word “kismet” means fate, and the circumstances that brought Kahyaoglu from his native Turkey to North Jersey are remarkable. He is a trained chef who visited 48 countries while working for a cruise line based in his home country. Upon arriving in New York in 1988 with only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he faced a major problem. “I could not even order lunch in a restaurant. My English was terrible,” Kahyaoglu recalls. He went from living and working in a pita factory with his countrymen to working on a garbage truck, cooking at a Sterns department store and finally to purchasing his first Town Car. He forced himself to make friends and interact socially with Americans, which accelerated his command of the language.

His single-Town Car business has multiplied rapidly into a million-dollar enterprise. Success has brought countless Turkish immigrants to his door seeking employment as chauffeurs. “I employ about 20 drivers who speak English as a second language, and this helps me as well as hurts me in some circumstances,” he says.

Kahyaoglu, whose English has improved dramatically, explains, “Knowing the families and the culture of my chauffeurs makes it easier. I trust them. But they must learn English to work for me. They must be able to handle corporate clients and talk to them and treat them professionally. They are not delivering pita bread. I train each chauffeur personally and I give him or her an English test. If I am not satisfied with their progress, they do not drive our customers. And if I receive a complaint about my chauffeur’s English, I will take him out personally and re-test his English skills.” Kahyaoglu has paid for English grammar instructional tapes and written materials. He encourages his foreign-born chauffeurs to speak English with each other as much as possible.

Tactics for Dealing With Prejudice What if a client refuses to be driven by a chauffeur who speaks English as a second language? Kahyaoglu says, “I would do everything possible to accommodate the customer. I am in a tough business in a very competitive market. Believe me when I say the customer will never hurt my feelings. If he will only pay to be driven by an American-born chauffeur, I will do my best to send one.”

The president of a well-known nationwide network is so leery of the topic, he wishes to remain anonymous. He does not want his corporate customers to know that he is not a U.S. native. “Hey, clients leave you for a million reasons,: he notes. “I do not want some redneck travel manager to decide that he does not want to do business with ‘foreigners.’”

Since chauffeurs deal directly with clients, certain requirements are necessary. “We require our foreign-born chauffeurs to pass an English test before they are allowed on the road,” the executive says. “WE make sure they have a strong command of the language. Every customer who has ever lived in or visited a big city like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston has been driven by a cab driver who spoke very little English. It is like the Seinfeld routine when he said his cabdriver’s name looked like the chemical symbol for boron. Clients have strong negative feelings about these cabdrivers. I understand that when you are paying for a limousine service, you reasonably expect more than just a ride from Point A to Point B. The client is more than willing to pay extra for our service.”

The gentleman is quick to add, “Unquestionably, our best chauffeurs speak English as a second language. They are more appreciative of the job. They make a better appearance. They are more service-oriented and they last longer. I can’t find American-born chauffeurs of similar ability, period. So the challenge we are constantly faced with is making sure our foreign-born drivers are perfecting their English skills.”

Working Chauffeur Needs English Proficiency
A chauffeur for a luxury transportation company is not a taxi driver. He or she must be able to comfortably converse with the paying customer. While an accent is certainly acceptable, a chauffeur should be able to:
  • Read a trip-sheet and follow directions from his or her employer.
  • Explain policies and procedures of your limousine company to the passenger.
  • Understand and follow requests from the client.
  • Read and understand English, at a minimum of a high-school level.
  • Converse with fellow drivers in English. An exception to these rules is when the chauffeur is capable of speaking a second language, which happens to be the spoken language of the client. This chauffeur has a particular advantage and is a valuable asset to the limousine company, especially on wedding and special occasion charters. Companies such as Route 22 Limousine in Hillside, N.J. and Secured Limousine of Haines City, Fla. advertise, “Spanish-speaking chauffeurs available.”

Instruction in American Business Customs Critical When Training Foreign-Born Chauffeurs
Language is not the only barrier when training a foreign-born chauffeur. Business etiquette expert Jane Lasky says employers are making a huge mistake by assuming that foreign-born workers know and understand the way business is conducted in this country. Business customers and simple social interaction are often markedly different for the immigrant chauffeur. The foreign-born chauffeur is often surprised and confused by the relative informality of American business.

Foreign business customs may be quite different. For example, in India, “please” and “thank you” are not commonly spoken. An Indian man would only feel comfortable shaking the hand of another man. French business people avoid the firm handshake and lightly caress the hand offered. The French prefer those formal titles such as “mister” or “mademoiselle” in business settings. Natives of Israel feel it is important to maintain eye contact in a business situation to assure the sincerity of what is being said. Looking away and avoiding eye contact are insulting. In Vietnam, when meeting a group of businessmen, it’s polite to give the most senior person your business card first. The simple “A-O.K.” sign given by connecting thumb and forefinger carries a negative, insulting meaning in Brazil and some other cultures.

Customer service trainer Cynthia Hamilton of Hamilton & Associates in Portland, Ore., points out that, “In some cultures, tapping your index finger on your nose or temple doesn’t mean you’re thinking about something, but instead means you’re crazy. In Asia, handshaking and other polite touching can be considered very inappropriate.” Another common misunderstanding can result from how close you stand to people when speaking to them. Social psychologists have found that Americans tend to keep a distance of 18 or more inches, whereas in other countries the average interaction space may be as little as 12 inches. Standing too close to a client can be perceived as threatening.

Lasky, quoted in Fortune magazine, feels training foreign-born workers in these areas of cultural differences pays dividends. “This is part of fully assimilating a worker to the job. Don’t assume that a person who has been in the United States for 10 years understands our business customs. That worker may interact 90 percent of the time with fellow immigrants. Take the time to show your worker how to meet and greet people and what amount of physical contact is appropriate.”

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