The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, without any vote or public announcement, has abandoned the use of hiring goals and timetables in settlements with private employers accused of race and sex discrimination.

While the Reagan administration is mired in a six-month-old debate over a Labor Department program that sets such goals and timetables for federal contractors, the EEOC has dropped the longstanding practice. Top EEOC officials have justified their switch with the same argument that Attorney General Edwin Meese III has used to criticize the Labor Department's program, charging that numerical hiring goals amount to discriminatory quotas.

Johnny J. Butler, EEOC's acting general counsel, said he told the agency's regional enforcement attorneys last fall that they should no longer submit proposed settlements involving hiring goals and timetables. Butler said he was carrying out the wishes of a majority of the EEOC's five commissioners, although they have adopted no formal policy on the subject.

"As a practical matter, there are at least three commissioners who are opposed to the use of quotas," Butler said, using the term interchangeably with goals and timetables. "All three of them have said, 'Johnny, you shouldn't be bringing any more quota cases.' "

EEOC Chairman Clarence Thomas said the de facto policy has been in effect for about a year as the commission considers proposed legal settlements.

"Should a consent decree with goals and timetables come before the commission, it doesn't have the votes," Thomas said. "They simply don't get approved.

"I've been called everything from anti-civil rights to Uncle Tom for having taken a different stand," Thomas added. But he said he still believes that hiring goals "denigrate an entire class of people."

Thomas said he will put the new policy before the full commission, but could not say when. "It is not a burning issue with me," he said.

Five members of Congress, led by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have criticized the EEOC for reversing its policy without public notice. They said in a recent letter to Thomas that this is "inconsistent with the commission's own affirmative-action guidelines" and "will send a conflicting and confused message to private employers."

"The commission is forfeiting the most effective tool to combat centuries of discrimination against women and minorities," said the letter, which was also signed by Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Don Edwards (D-Calif.), Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Matthew G. Martinez (D-Calif.).

President Reagan has not decided whether to revise a 20-year-old executive order on affirmative action for government contractors because his Cabinet has been split by the issue. Sixty-nine senators and 180 House members have urged Reagan not to tamper with the Labor Department program.

At the EEOC, goals and timetables have been used frequently since the early 1970s, when they were included in nationwide consent decrees covering large segments of the steel and trucking industries. Such goals became "a standard practice" during the Carter administration, Butler said.

Little changed during Reagan's first term, but the shift became clear last year. In a case involving New York sheet-metal workers, the EEOC joined the Justice Department in urging the Supreme Court to strike down minority hiring targets the commission had previously supported.

Last fall, the EEOC signed a consent decree settling sex discrimination charges against Macmillan Publishing Co. But the decree specified that "the EEOC takes no position" on a provision involving hiring goals, "and will not participate in its enforcement."

Another proposed consent decree with detailed minority hiring goals, signed by Schnuck Markets of St. Louis, has been awaiting commission approval since August, according to EEOC sources. They said no reason has been given for the delay.

Under Thomas, who is seeking reappointment this summer, the commission has moved away from sweeping, industrywide lawsuits and is concentrating on individual cases that rely less on hiring statistics. Barry L. Goldstein of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund criticized this approach, saying that "finding individual victims is often an impossible and fruitless task. Nobody tells you they're not hiring you because of your race."