'Best tech employer of the year' threatened trainee with £15k penalty fee for quitting to look after his sick mum

And Sparta Global then didn't bother turning up to the Employment Tribunal


Updated A company hailed as the UK's top tech employer tried to diddle a former trainee out of £2,000 in unlawfully withheld back pay – and a judge was startled when he discovered how Sparta Global treats its new hires.

The London-headquartered firm, which boasts of delivering "top business and technology professionals", in fact forces its trainees to spend three months without pay before locking them into a two-year contract.

If these so-called "Spartans" want out before that two-year period ends, the company threatens them with a £22,000 "training fee", as Croydon Employment Tribunal found.

A Mr N Ofonagoro filed suit against Sparta Global for the return of £2,200 in unlawfully withheld pay after he quit before his two-year contract had ended. Rather than contest the case, Sparta Global paid 26-year-old Mr Ofonagoro the cash, hoping he'd withdraw the case, and then didn't bother turning up for the tribunal hearing.

Employment Judge Ian Truscott QC wasn't fooled, however, and in a damning judgment he accepted all of Mr Ofonagoro's claims.

Sparta Global boasts of supplying IT contractors to the Home Office, mobile network Three and the Ministry of Justice. Yet the quality of their training process will come under scrutiny following this Employment Tribunal ruling.

Describing the former trainee's £23,000-a-year contract, Judge Truscott said trainees would attend unpaid training for three months before their salaries kicked in: "The claimant had no right to terminate the training contract except in the first 14 days and [only] then, providing the claimant had not started any Placement. Thus, for example, if the claimant had resigned on day 15, according to the training contract, he would be liable to repay £22,000."

The £22k demand could be reduced depending on how long the trainee had worked for Sparta Global before quitting. A maximum reduction of 75 per cent was available for people who walked between 18 and 24 months after starting a placement with a client firm.

As for the quality of Sparta's training, the judge's findings were clear:

All training was provided in-house by the respondent and none procured from any external supplier. The trainers did not have any specific level of qualification. The claimant's allocated 'coach' had been coding for 18 months. Most of the training was self-learning… Although the respondent claimed that the trainee would continue to be trained, in practice, at the end of 3 months, the training effectively ceased.

Sparta Global's website quotes one of its "Spartans" as saying: "My time at the Sparta Academy may have even overprepared me!" That person, the website claims, now works for the Home Office.

Before quitting in mid-2019, eight months into his job with Sparta, Mr Ofonagoro asked bosses if he could be placed with a London-based client because his mother was sick and his previous two placements had been outside the capital.

The "best tech employer of the year" rejected his request and when he explained the reasons, responded by threatening to sack him and demanding he pay them his "training costs". When he called the company's bluff and quit, it hit him with an "early termination fee" of £15,000, withholding a total of £2,200 from his final paycheques.

Sparta Global was recently honoured with the title "Best Tech Employer of the Year (50-500 employees)" by the UK-based Women in Tech organisation. A press release on the campaign group's website said of Sparta Global: "They offer free tech training and are constantly running initiatives to address the gender balance."

Sparta Global's own press release about the award said: "Our trainees receive free tech training so our female hires can develop the fundamental skills they need to thrive in their careers – irrespective of background or previous experiences."

Sparta Global's contempt for Mr Ofonagoro also stretched to the legal process. Mr Ofonagoro's solicitors asked for legal disclosure of documents for the employment tribunal. The company "did not provide a substantive response to that letter". Instead it hired notorious London attack dog Mishcon de Reya, which tried to have the case struck out.

Ironically, Mishcon stopped representing Sparta after three months "on the basis of cost" – and even then, as Judge Truscott found, the lawyers "did not assert that the actual cost to [Sparta Global] of the claimant's training was £22,000" and "did not provide details or any corroborative documentation to support any actual costs expended on the claimant's training under the training contract".

The hefty penalty fee for departing trainees was unlawful, the judge found, because Sparta Global either didn't have any information about why the fee was so high or "disclosure of any such material would damage its case". ®

Updated to add:

Sparta got in touch after the publication of this piece to say: "Sparta is passionate about providing graduates with opportunities in the tech industry and ensuring they have the skills and training needed to thrive in an increasingly competitive marketplace without any upfront training cost to them.

"For this reason, Sparta would normally defend such claims on a point of principle. However, Sparta took the difficult decision not to defend it because of the timing of the claim in the middle of the pandemic."


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