Language diversity policy

February 1, 2018

The City cultural and racial composition and its workforce are among the most diverse in the nation. Therefore, the City reaffirms its Policy on Language Diversity, which fosters acceptance and prevents intergroup tensions as related to the use of languages other than English in the provision of public services and the employment of individuals whose primary language is not English.

The City recognizes that a workforce that speaks languages other than English enhances the services provided to the City’s culturally diverse public by providing efficient and accessible public services to its non-English speaking communities.

Additionally, the Equal Access to City Services for Limited English Speakers Ordinance makes it the City’s policy to provide equal access to City services to all San Franciscans, including those with limited proficiency in English.

All employees of the City are advised that an employee’s use of a language other than English not only helps provide public services to others but, with few exceptions, is a legally protected right.

The City also reaffirms its equal employment opportunity policy that ensures the opportunity for employment of an ethnically and culturally diverse workforce wherein individuals shall enjoy equal application of the terms and conditions of employment, including the right to speak their primary language.

Back to top

The City’s policy complies with the guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These guidelines state that not letting employees speak their native language in the workplace may result in unlawful national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

A rule that requires employees to speak only English at all times may violate Title VII as a burdensome term and condition of employment since the primary language of an employee is often an essential national origin characteristic. Therefore, a department may only have a rule requiring that employees speak only English at certain times where an employer:

  • shows that the rule is justified by business necessity
  • notifies their employees of the speak-only-English rule and of the general circumstances when speaking only English is required
  • notifies employees of the consequences of violating the rule

There are few circumstances under which a policy will meet the “business necessity” test. Justifications like “Supervisors can’t understand what employees are saying,” “English speaking employees suspect that non-English speaking employees are talking about them,” and “The policy will enhance the public image,” are not enough to meet the "business necessity" requirement.

Departments must talk with the City Attorney before they can implement an English-only rule.

Back to top

Dual responsibility

Supervisors and line employees have a shared responsibility for maintaining a work environment that is comfortable and productive for everyone. Where co-workers or clients express concerns about employees speaking in a language other than English, supervisors should work toward informally resolving these interpersonal difficulties in a constructive and sensitive manner.

To assure effective communication during emergencies and constructive discussion of assignments, work performance, and work rules, supervisors and employees should expect that any direct communications be conducted in a commonly understood language.

Back to top

Implementing the policy

Each department’s Appointing Officer is responsible for implementation of this Policy on Language Diversity. The Human Resources Director is responsible for ensuring compliance with this policy.

Employees and applicants for employment who believe that they have been subjected to unlawful conduct in violation of this policy may file a complaint with the City’s Department of Human Resources, EEO Division (DHR EEO) under the provisions of Civil Service Commission Rules. Instructions on how to file a complaint are available from the DHR EEO Division, located at 1 So. Van Ness Ave., 4th Floor, by calling (415) 557-4900 or (415) 557-4810 (TTY), or the City’s DHR website:, or by email at Complaints may also be filed with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Back to top

Distributing the policy

Appointing officers or department leaders are responsible for making sure all employees are aware of this policy.

Departments must distribute this policy to all employees and post it in a conspicuous manner on departmental or employee bulletin boards.

This policy also must be included in the department’s new employee orientation.

Back to top