David Tatel, former secretary Joseph A. Califano's chief civil rights enforcer at the Department of Health. Education and Welfare in stormy battles with North Carolina for the past two years, received what some observers called a sharp dressing-down in front of his own staff Tuesday from incoming Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris.

Shortly afterward, Tatel met privately with Harris and confirmed a previous decision to leave by December 1. She apparently made not effort to dissuade him.

A spokesman for Harris strongly denied that the incident signals any intention to retreat on civil rights. "Anyone who knows Pat Harris wouldn't even ask that question," he said.

According to those present during the earlier meeting, Harris told Tatel that she found two briefing books on civil rights issues prepared by him sloppy and inadequate, containing no index, executive summary or table of contents. (Some at the meeting said these items were included).

Moreover, when Tatel urged a rapid start of negotiations with Pennsylvania and Maryland in two disegregation disputes to avert a request for contempt of court citations against HEW by civil rights attorneys Joseph L. Rauh and Elliott Lichtman, Harris pointedly responded that she moves only on the merits of an issue and not just to avoid potential contempt citations.

According to one participants, Harris stressed the need in civil rights to move with some "political sensitivity," a posture that close friends of Tatel in the civil rights community said left him feeling "lower than a snake" for fear his efforts to enforce civil rights wouldn't get as much backing as he wanted.

Reports of the incident rippled through the civil rights community yesterday, bringing warm praise for Tatel's past efforts and concern for continuation of stringent enforcement after he leaves.

One of the reasons Califano was fired as secretary of HEW by President Carter two weeks ago was the political antagonism toward the Carter administration desegregation proposals in the University of North Carolina system.

William L. Taylor, a former federal civil rights official and now head of the Catholic University Center for National Policy Review, called Tatel "one of the smartest, hardest-working and ablest lawyers" he knew.

"If he were forced out, it would be interpreted as an anticivil rights move by many," said Taylor.

Rauh, who has constantly battled HEW to speed enforcement, said, "Dave Tatel is the best thing that ever happened to civil rights at HEW." And the NAACP's Althea Simmons said, "Tatel is a good man -- a good lawyer and trying to do good things."

A Harris spokesman said her remarks at the Tuesday meeting were "not an attempt to say Tatel was doing a poor job" but simply an attempt to let him know the kind of format and presentation she likes in the future. "Her tone is direct, very direct and to the point," he said, and some people occasionally misinterpret it, but "that's the way she talks" and in the long run it avoids misunderstanding by making it clear what she wants.

"Pat Harris did not ask for his resignation," the spokesman said. "He told her that he had told Joe Califano earlier and had told the [Harris] transition team that he expected to leave by December 1 and he indicated that again to her" on Tuesday.

The spokesman said Harris' devotion to civil rights is unquestionable, and her commitment has been evident for many years. Harris, who is black, has long been active in civil rights.

As for the phrase "political sensitivity," the spokesman said, "I don't recall whether she used it, but sensitivity to her clearly means achieving the goal, but without exacerbating controversy if possible."

Tatel, a former partner in Hogan & Hartson here and director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights was in Chicago last night and could not be reached for comment.