Susan was excited about the chance to work at Tarrant County College (TCC). The single mom had been hired for a mid-level position in TCC’s human resources department. Just minutes into her first meeting with HR director Gloria Maddox-Powell, at The Cheesecake Factory downtown, Susan alleges Maddox-Powell gaslighted her. Susan said the director arrived with someone else and, at one point, allegedly left Susan alone with her. Susan said it was Mercedes Ramirez, TCC’s manager of special projects for HR, who allegedly described an “anonymous phone call” from a former colleague of Susan’s at a North Texas community college who had concerns about whether Susan would be a good fit for TCC’s HR department. Ramirez then described lengthy allegations that Susan gave preferential treatment to Hispanics and millennials. Susan said she was shocked, but since she had already quit her last job, she took the TCC position to be able to support her child.
Over the course of the next year and a half as a new TCC hire, Susan would learn that no one from her former workplace had called Maddox-Powell or Ramirez. One TCC employee confided to Susan that the two administrators allegedly frequently used open records requests to obtain embarrassing information about prospective employees.
“They tried to find any information to control me,” Susan recently told me in a phone interview — she is withholding her real, full name for fear of retaliation. Maddox-Powell “bragged about doing that.”
Susan describes her time at TCC as hell. Several former college workers whom I interviewed shared similar stories about Maddox-Powell’s allegedly divisive leadership.
The 57-year-old community college that spans several campuses across Tarrant County and serves 46,000 students per year has come under public scrutiny in recent weeks.
TCC’s board of trustees recently voted to terminate the contract of chancellor Eugene Giovannini which paid him $432,836 a year. Earlier this year and before his termination, the trustees placed Giovannini on paid administrative leave as an ongoing internal investigation examined his handling of the firing of Kristen Bennett, a former fundraising executive who is currently suing the college. One trustee cited the handling of Bennett’s termination as the main reason for the chancellor’s ouster.
In court documents tied to the lawsuit, Bennett’s attorney alleges that Giovannini retaliated against Bennett after she tried to address the poor workplace behavior of a woman who was allegedly dating Giovannini.
The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Frank Hill, said TCC has a history of illegal firings.
“The district has a long-standing system problem in failing to give basic due process, and it has already cost the district substantial sums of money,” Hill said, referring to one recent lawsuit (not related to Bennett) that TCC was forced to settle for an undisclosed amount (“ A Pattern of Poor Leadership?” March 18). “I lay the primary blame of that at the feet of Giovannini.”
The former employees who spoke to me said that TCC used to be a wonderful and uplifting place to work, adding that the hiring of Giovannini in 2016 and Maddox-Powell in 2019 created a toxic work environment that has sent employees fleeing.
My open records requests seeking employment figures before and after Maddox-Powell’s hiring have been blocked by TCC’s attorneys. The Texas Public Information Act requires governmental groups like TCC to make good faith efforts to release requested government documents to the public, but the college’s leaders have chosen to misuse the act by requiring that I resubmit my requests with specific legal verbiage to delay or block them.
“Maddox-Powell would divide and conquer departments, so people were afraid to talk to one another,” Susan said. “I was continuously oppressed, and it inhibited my ability to do what I was trained to do.”
I forwarded questions for Maddox-Powell and Ramirez to a TCC spokesperson who told me that the college does not comment on personnel issues.
After a 20-plus year career as a seminar leader, platform public speaker, corporate trainer, HR consultant, and subject matter expert in HR law, Jenny, who is not sharing her real, full name for fear of retaliation, spent most of her career traveling the country and educating various clients on their rights and responsibilities under federal laws that mandate equal employment opportunities. She held executive-level positions in HR management before seeking an opportunity to join TCC’s HR department on an annual contract basis.
“Although I was new to higher education in a non-teaching position, I was confident that my previous experience and knowledge as an HR manager, equal employment opportunity consultant, and skilled educator on a public platform for years would be a positive match for the position sought,” Jenny said.
After a lengthy interview process, she joined TCC’s staff for the 2020-2021 academic year as coordinator of the college’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Jenny was tasked with helping employees understand their rights and responsibilities under the federal act — something she took pride in. Jenny began working remotely in August of that year. Her immediate supervisor, Lorrie Ward, was new at the time and appeared unable to provide consistent answers to Jenny’s questions. Ward leaned heavily on her boss, Maddox-Powell, for help, Jenny alleges.
“During the first three weeks of employment, and after one week of general orientation, there was a lot of information to grasp and unexpected changes as I acclimated to the position,” Jenny recalled of that first month that she helped TCC employees apply for accommodations through the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).
Three weeks after starting her new job, she was placed on a disciplinary Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) drafted and presented by Maddox-Powell. Jenny provided me with a copy of the PIP.
“Maddox-Powell’s reasons were based on petty annoyances, negative stereotypes, subjective bias, and false assumptions about my abilities, traits, and work performance,” Jenny alleges. “Additionally, there was no previous verbal or written record of discussion or awareness of a concern as outlined in the PIP.”
Jenny was shocked when she learned why she was disciplined. One infraction, repeatedly showing up to meetings canceled by Maddox-Powell at the last minute, was an honest mistake. Another item placed on the PIP happened during an August phone call with Maddox-Powell, when Jenny said she forgot the name of a file. The PIP meant that Jenny was effectively on probation and ineligible for the types of contractual agreements that guarantee employees a full year of work.
“My job was placed in jeopardy because of such punitive action,” Jenny said. “Maddox-Powell cited many reasons that could not be justified with a relevant or plausible explanation. For example, I was accused of being a liar when I asked clarifying questions during a meeting about a document I had briefly reviewed.”
Based on one TCC HR document, Maddox-Powell wrote, “On August 28th, after being asked by our executive director to review the form she created to send to physicians prior to a later meeting to discuss it, you stated that you had read the form.”
The accusations, Jenny alleges, are baseless.
Based on TCC policy, the college sends letters to retained campus employees through the academic year that starts September 1. Maddox-Powell waited until the last day possible to give Jenny the PIP. Even with the disciplinary action looming over her, the new HR hire said she persevered and filed 91 FMLA forms by the end of October.
“Despite the PIP and brief learning curve, I successfully completed [my assignments] within 45 days; developed a detailed communication strategy for faculty, staff, and employees; redesigned spreadsheets for tracking purposes; and drafted a standard operating procedure for the ADA requests process, which ensured a legally compliant procedure,” Jenny said. “By late fall of 2020, after repeatedly requesting the FMLA training to assume the position for which I was hired, it was delayed indefinitely. I was denied repeatedly, and for five months, I was relegated to my remote office without work to perform.”
Jenny, whom I met in person during our first interview, is a self-assured, educated, and mature woman. If Maddox-Powell was looking for a subservient worker, Jenny was not that person.
“I did not hide my frustration with” Maddox-Powell’s poor leadership, Jenny said.
By March of last year, the new TCC employee had had enough. She filed a complaint in which she listed several grievances.
“The decision to enforce a wrongful and unjust PIP against me has resulted in the denial of the employment privilege and opportunity to perform the duties and responsibilities of the position for which I was hired,” part of the complaint reads. “After questioning the legitimacy and validity of the PIP, I have been labeled as an angry, defensive, and argumentative woman. I have been subjected to an extended probationary period of 90 days. I believe the extension is being used as a pretext to silence me from changing any future unjust or punitive actions against me.”
One month later, Jenny resigned. She felt her departure was validated after Maddox-Powell allegedly pushed out an elderly, legally blind adjunct professor, a potential violation of the ADA.
Jenny is now focused on her consultation business in which she educates clients about their workplace rights under state and federal law. It was only after leaving the college that she learned that other TCC employees were having similar experiences.
While the ouster of TCC’s chancellor has garnered local media coverage and statements by the college’s board of trustees, the internal problems plaguing TCC’s HR department have not been publicly acknowledged by community college leaders. Attorney Hill, who has successfully sued TCC for wrongful terminations multiple time, sees Giovannini as the primary source of malfeasance at the college while several current and former TCC employees told me that the issues of retaliatory leadership are a pervasive problem across the campuses.
In March, TCC’s trustees voted to allocate up to $200,000 for services from the Dallas law firm Locke Lord to investigate complaints filed with the board by college employees. The board passed the agenda item without discussion. One TCC insider said Locke Lorde will investigate numerous complaints about TCC’s HR leadership.
Throughout his 11 years working for TCC as coordinator of measurement and evaluation, Karl Ronacher saw a steady erosion of faculty morale. TCC’s previous head of HR, Dr. Ricardo Coronado, was tough and smart and always looking out for the best interests of the college, Ronacher said.
Coronado “always had an open-door policy,” he continued. “He never held grudges against any employee. He was the best supervisor I have had in my 32-year career.”
Ronacher’s first negative interaction with Maddox-Powell happened shortly after the onset of the 2020 pandemic. Ronacher believes she targeted experienced employees like him because he feels she is insecure and underqualified. TCC staff have so far refused to release my requested copy of Maddox-Powell’s resume.
“The employees were sent to work from home,” said Ronacher, who specializes in data management and evaluation. “I was ordered to sort mail and complete other duties for which I was not qualified. This was an example of trying to make me miserable in an attempt to get me to leave.”
Ronacher provided me with a copy of TCC’s employee standards of conduct that forbids workers from accepting tasks for which they are not qualified. Ronacher alleges that Ramirez, TCC’s manager of special projects, would frequently ask him to perform basic math problems that a sixth grader should know. Maddox-Powell, he continued, constantly criticized TCC’s HR program and belittled its workers. Ronacher believes HR director Maddox-Powell’s alleged derogatory demeanor was intended to intimidate everyone who worked below her and to make her appear to be the solution to problems that never existed before her tenure.
“The philosophy used to be that we help employees become better employees,” Ronacher said. “We taught them how to deal with conflict and how to enhance their careers. It was truly a good place to work. Maddox-Powell is a big bully. Her mode of operation is to pick on people she wants to get rid of.”
In January 2021, Ronacher retired, largely to escape having to deal with the HR department’s toxic environment, and his wasn’t the only exodus around that time.
Rebecca, who is not using her real, full name for fear of retaliation, recently left TCC’s HR department after two years of witnessing what she described as unsettling actions on the part of Maddox-Powell. The HR director created unnecessary high-level positions, Rebecca alleges, because she did not have the skill or experience to manage the department. The newly created positions, Rebecca alleges, would complete the tasks that Maddox-Powell could not handle herself.
Before Maddox-Powell headed the department, employees were encouraged to discuss salary changes and promotions, Rebecca said. Under Maddox-Powell, Rebecca alleges, employees were expected to do as they were told. Rebecca alleges that Maddox-Powell gave her friend Ramirez a significant raise without requiring more work and without the education requirements for the position, director of special projects.
“To me, that would be favoritism,” Rebecca said. Ramirez was given a job title, a pay raise, but “no change in job description. We saw morale lower. We felt demeaned. We were told that [Maddox-Powell] had an open-door policy, but you could tell that she had her favorites. When I resigned, she offered my position to another co-worker and gave them a pay increase of more than what I made. I was labeled toxic. If you knew more than she did, she felt threatened.”
Susan, who wrote an open letter to TCC’s leadership in December, echoed many of the experiences cited by Rebecca.
Maddox-Powell “told me that I was a poor leader,” Susan said. “She never met with my team. She never [acknowledged] a single thing we produced. Everything she said was wild verbal accusations that weren’t grounded in reality.”
Ronacher said the dysfunction in TCC’s HR department is partly the result of poor leadership at the community college.
“Giovannini has this position that he really cares about the community and the students,” Ronacher said. “The people that he has put in charge, especially over HR, are unethical. They deliberately violate their own policies. And that concerns me.”
Over the course of my several weeks of research for this story, current and former TCC instructors reached out to us with their own horror stories that have ties to the college’s HR department. One current adjunct instructor who asked to go by Sam to protect his privacy said adjuncts were recently given contracts that bar them from state unemployment benefits — an act that is expressly prohibited by the Texas Workforce Commission, the governmental group that provides unemployment benefits (“ Higher Ed, Lower Wages,” March 30).
Part of Texas’ labor code reads, “An employer may not require or accept a waiver of a right of an individual employed by the employer.”
One former adjunct who asked that we conceal his identity for fear of reprisal said he was terminated because his dean didn’t want to accommodate his disabilities. Unable to drive, the adjunct said he often could not afford Uber rides to travel to and from work, adding that his pay (around $500 per class per month for adjuncts) was not enough to make buying frequent trips affordable. The adjunct said TCC can expect a federal investigation over his wrongful termination in the near future. He asked our magazine to share his message with our readers.
“Tarrant County, this is your junior college,” he said. “It needs to be fixed. They receive money from the federal government, state, and county. As a Tarrant County resident, I wouldn’t give them a dime if I had my way about it.”
Susan and Rebecca told me they have found rewarding work outside of TCC. Time affords perspective, and the two former county college employees now understand that their past leaders created a hostile work environment that lowered morale and impeded productivity. When they talk to their friends who stayed on at TCC, the feedback is that things are as bad as ever at the college’s HR department.
“TCC is a phenomenal institution,” Ronacher said. “They have helped a lot of people. They are a huge organization, and these people are running it into the ground. Good people are leaving. I wanted to retire when my wife retired, but I went ahead and retired a year ago because I qualified. I was sick of dealing with this shit — the harassment, having me do things I’m not qualified to do.”
Before Jenny resigned from TCC, she reached out to Maddox-Powell to have one final face-to-face discussion about her boss’ alleged acts of intimidation. Jenny said Maddox-Powell never responded. Jenny said that someone at the college needs to hold the head of HR responsible for the torment she caused former and current employees.
“When I joined, I was very excited,” Jenny said. “I was tasked with ensuring that the employees’ rights will be recognized. Within three weeks, I’m on a PIP. What happened to me should never have happened.”